North-west farmers get rub of the green on grass growth – Ireland

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This report is the latest update from Michael Duffy’s sheep farm in Kerrykeel, 23 miles north of Letterkenny on the Fanad Peninsula in Donegal.

Farming life is dominated by weather; 2018 has shown how extremes of weather, such as heavy snowfalls and prolonged drought, can impact on the best laid plans.

However, farmers in the north-west of the country escaped both of these extremes. While there was quite a bit of rainfall during August and September, 2018 has been a good year for both the grass-based and tillage sectors in the northwest – grass growth is still above normal.

The main issue here at present is trying to take late silage cuts on some heavy soils or in fields with a high water table.

Michael has already purchased 375 store lambs this year, direct from two farms.

His own lambs and the purchased stores have performed well over the last two months, but during the last two to three weeks, performance has begun to suffer due to the effects of rain on grass dry matter and grass utilisation.

“I will now house any forward store lambs on ad lib meal so that grass supply is preserved for my ewe flock,” says Michael.

Some bought-in stores have already been sold, and the majority will be sold over the coming weeks.

These lambs are on grass and split into two groups, with heavier lambs being trough-fed approximately 0.5kg of concentrates twice per day, and the lighter group being fed 0.5kg once per day.

Michael adds: “I just have 120 my own lambs left which is well ahead of 2017.”

While this is partly due to the much better weather in 2018, he also made some other changes, including feeding ewes for four to five weeks post-lambing and creep-feeding about 50pc of his lambs.

He feels that the fact that he has so many of his lambs sold and that lambs hit higher prices in July and August justifies this approach this year.

“I am happy with the change and will do something similar in 2019 and hope that I can get a similar performance,” he says.

However, his approach would not be advisable for anyone who is currently getting 60-70pc of their lamb crop sold in by late September on little or no meals.

It could be considered by those selling over 50pc of March-born lambs in the October to the December/January period, having been fed €12-€15 of concentrates each.

Michael has 80 ewe lambs selected for replacements, and he also purchased 30 ewe lambs with quarter Belclare genetics, as in previous years.

While he may select some more of his own ewe lambs he does not intend buying in any more replacements this year. He hopes to have 320 ewes and 110 ewe lambs going to the ram, which would be an increase of 30 on 2017.

One setback was that Michael’s ewe lambs contacted conjunctivitis, an eye infection that has been occurring over the past three years.

“They took a bit of a hit performance-wise so I now have them split in two groups according to liveweight,” he says. “There is one group of 50 lambs with an average liveweight of 52kg on grass only with the remaining lambs that average 46kg, getting half a kilogram of meal per day.”

The ewes have had two cobalt doses and will get two more before mating.

“They are all in good condition, probably about half a body condition score (BCS) better than last year,” says Michael.

“I will give them a triclabendazole dose for liver fluke next week. I am using zinc sulphate in the footbath.”

Grass growth has continued to be very good.

Michael began spreading his final round of 30 units of nitrogen in the week of September but he had to stop half-way through due to heavy rainfall, which has continued since.

He hopes to complete the operation in the coming days as the ground is still in good shape for the time of year.

Michael will mate his ewes in groups of 50 per ram. They will be single-sire mated, with the rams rotated after 17 days.

He will use raddle paste on the rams. He hopes to have a final team of three Suffolk, two Texel, two Charollais, two Bluefaced Leicester and one Belclare ram. This will leave him with two ‘subs’ if anything goes wrong.

Michael hopes to purchase some more store lambs later on.

He is investigating the purchase of a ‘diet feeder’ to reduce the workload during the winter and spring.

Like all major farming decisions it is not straight-forward as he has to take into account many factors including his existing tractor and loader, feed passages, feedback from other farmers and flock size.

Hopefully it will be in situ for the next update in December.

John Cannon is a Teagasc advisor based in Letterkenny, Co Donegal email: john.cannon@teagasc.ie

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