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Northern Ireland Sheep Programme

The Northern Ireland Sheep Programme was launched in May 2019 at Balmoral Show. The programme is a joint collaboration between CAFRE, Dunbia and the Irish Farmers Journal. The aim of the three-year programme is to increase the profitability of participating farmers through technology transfer and the adoption of the latest research advancements and management practices.

There are 9 participating farmers and the farms deliver a good geographical spread in sheep strongholds.

The farms also reflect the diverse nature of the sheep sector, with significant variation in flock size, systems operated, land type and breed profile.

The programme will be very much applicable to farmers in Northern Ireland, Ireland and across Britain. Those interested will be able to follow developments and learn about each farm through the Irish Farmers Journal media platforms, with coverage ramping up in the coming weeks. CAFRE and Dunbia events will also provide updates and longer term there will be an opportunity for farm visits.

Meet the farmers

Mark Davidson from Dungannon, County Tyrone

Peter Mant and Kate Kingan from Tynan, Co Armagh

Clement Lynch from Park, County Derry/Londonderry

Roy and Marilyn Mayers from Tempo, County Fermanagh

Dermot McAleese from Loughgiel, County Antrim

Peter and Karol McCaughan from Glenshesk, Ballycastle County Antrim

James McCay from Drumquin, County Tyrone

Paraic and Seamus McNeill from Annaclone, County Down

Trevor Nixon from Bellanaleck, County Fermanagh

Programme targets

At this stage, the farmers participating are progressing well with getting farm plans finalised. Baseline production and financial data has been established and this is forming the basis for setting short-, medium- and long-term goals. The programme has a three-year timeline but a longer term view is being taken with medium-term (one to three years) and long-term (three to five years) targets which may be more sustainable where there are significant changes to the system or investments required that could put pressure on cashflow.

There are eight main areas highlighted where plans are being assessed and a brief synopsis of these is described below to show where the focus lies.

1. Financial performance

The overarching aim of the programme is to leave farmers in a better financial position. This will be the cornerstone in the programme being successful and will influence the level of interaction and efficiency improvements at national level.

It is difficult to set gross margin targets across the board because farms are starting from different positions and systems vary so much. Each participant will therefore have a financial target that reflects their system with CAFRE benchmarking analysis used as the point of reference.

2. Farm sustainability

The agricultural sector is aware there is growing scrutiny around environmental management, with all sectors under the spotlight. Environmental sustainability is an important part of agricultural systems but it cannot be a target taken in isolation. Farms must also be sustainable from the point of view of producer viability as there is a cost borne in environmental management.

For example, hill sheep systems play a vital role in maintaining the uplands in a vegetative state that promotes enhanced biodiversity and captures carbon from the atmosphere. The economics of hill sheep systems are challenging and therefore, for farmers to be in a position to ensure environmental management, there must be a reward that in turn supports farm sustainability.

This theme will be kept in mind in farm plans, with the results of initiatives undertaken feeding into a wider industry-wide sustainability discussion. Farm sustainability spans a number of key production parameters such as antimicrobial resistance becoming a growing concern in human health and shining a spotlight on antibiotic usage in livestock systems.

3. Flock health

Flock health is the basis on which production performance will either prosper or fail. A health plan is being developed for each farm in consultation with the vet. This will identify high-risk areas for each farm and embrace a preventative approach that promotes strategic use of vaccines and limits antibiotic usage. Anthelmintic resistance will also be addressed in terms of establishing if resistance is an issue and putting in place best-practice treatment procedures.

At this early stage of the programme it is also apparent that there will be learnings to be achieved in the area of so-called iceberg diseases, with testing for ovine pulmonary adenocarcinoma (OPA) in some flocks confirming industry fears that it is a growing problem. Five out of the six farms tested so far have uncovered a small number of cases. Repeat scanning will be carried out to determine its presence and help feed into control guidelines and advice for farms that encounter similar issues.

4. Soil fertility

Grazing performance is greatly constrained on livestock farms by soils falling below optimum pH levels while many are also running at deficit levels for phosphorus (P) and potassium (K). There is huge potential to improve sward productivity and increase growth rates by just addressing soil fertility. Soil fertility should also be the starting point before reseeding takes place, with the subsequent performance of the reseed underpinned by the fertility status.

Many farms are already aware of issues following recent soil samples and a fertiliser programme is being established that is appropriate to the stocking rate on the farm and brings about gradual improvements. Account will be taken of varying soil types and the most appropriate advice for marginal or upland habitats.

5. Improving grazing performance

There is huge scope at national level to improve grazing performance and this is no different for the programme farmers. Grassland measuring and budgeting will establish current performance and track production over time while, as already mentioned, addressing soil fertility offers huge potential to increase output.

Improving grazing infrastructure will be an equally important tool to increase performance at a lower cost and this will be explored in both hill and lowland systems. Maintaining vegetation in a productive state will deliver comparable benefits to lamb performance as for grassland swards. Furthermore, it will deliver on a dual target of environmental management and the upkeep of hill and upland areas. The latest research on heather control and rush management will be adopted where necessary.

6. Breeding and genetic improvement

Stocking rate and prolificacy are two key parameters influencing potential profit margins. Each breeding programme will be reviewed to establish if the farm’s litter size is at an optimum level, with significant differences likely depending on the farm’s facilities and preferred breed.

Targets on lowland farms start at a baseline of weaning 1.5 to 1.6 lambs per ewe joined to rams while some farms utilising higher prolificacy genes are targeting producing 1.8 lambs or higher. This is in contrast to hill farms, where the aim is to produce at least one lamb per ewe mated.

More focus may need to be placed on maternal breeding lines, while a significant barrier denting genetic gain in the UK sheep industry is the low availability of performance-recorded rams. Every effort will be made to address this challenge including looking further afield and outside Northern Ireland for superior genetics.

Nutrition has a key role to play, as has taking steps to maximise conception rate and reduce mortality. Target barren rates are 2% to 3% for lowland flocks and an upper level of 5% for hill flocks. Mortality targets of 10% are deemed most appropriate for medium-prolificacy flocks, rising to 12% to 15% for high-prolificacy flocks and those lambing yearling hoggets.

7. Marketing prowess

The target for flocks drafting lambs for slaughter through Dunbia is to have greater than 90% of lambs meeting desired market specification. Outline drafting targets include hitting a target of drafting 80% of lambs of the farm by 1 October and 100% by 31 December. The emphasis is on maximising performance from grazed grass but strategic use will also be made of concentrates and, where applicable, forage crops, with a couple of farms in the programme already experimenting with these crops.

Electronic identification and performance recording from birth to slaughter will feed back valuable information that can be used to strengthen breeding decisions. For some farms, the production system will entail selling store lambs or, depending on farm circumstances, feed availability, finishing and how finishing budgets stack up, some may opt for a combination of bringing lambs through to slaughter and selling store lambs.

8. Farm safety

Farm safety is a vital component of any farming enterprise. Each farm will be assessed to identify any safety issues while farms will also carry out an assessment to see if there are areas where efficiencies could be put in place that will streamline tasks, reduce labour and ultimately make for a safer workplace.

Northern Ireland Sheep Programme WebEx Events

There is a series of five Northern Ireland Sheep Programme WebEx events.

An Introduction to Paddock Grazing

Event 1 topics include:

  • Introduction to the NISP
  • Introduction to the NISP Participant Farmers
  • Paraic McNeill Farm Overview
  • Introduction to Paddock Grazing on the McNeill Farm.

Introduction to Lamb Selection & Market Specification

Event 2 topics include:

  • Introduction to the NISP
  • Introduction to the NISP Participant Farmers
  • Mark Davidson Farm Overview
  • Introduction to Lamb Selection and Market Specification
  • Lamb Market Outlook

Assessing ewes and rams pre breeding

Event 3 topics include:

  • Introduction to the NISP;
  • Introduction to the NISP Participant Farmers
  • Clement Lynch Farm Overview;
  • Introduction to Assessing Ewes and Rams pre breeding

Ovine Pulmonary Adenocarcinoma (OPA)

Event 4 topics include:

  • Introduction to the NISP
  • Introduction to the NISP Participant Farmers
  • Peter and Karol McCaughan Farm Overview
  • Introduction to OPA

Pre-lambing Health and Management

Event 5 topics include:

  • Background to the NISP
  • Pre-lambing Health and Management  featuring James McCay
  • Pre-lambing Health and Management  – A vet’s perspective
  • STAMP  (Antibiotic benchmarking) project
Maximising Lamb Performance at Grass

Event 6 topics include:

  • Background to the NISP
  • Maximising lamb performance at grass featuring Roy and Marilyn Mayers – Tempo, Co Fermanagh
  • Maximising lamb performance at grass featuring CAFRE Beef and Sheep Centre
Wormer resistance affecting lamb growth

Event 7 topics include:

  • Wormer Resistance – Affecting Lamb Growth featuring Trevor Nixon
  • Anthelmintic Resistance in Sheep in Northern Ireland
Navigating through a winter of higher feed costs

Event 8 topics include:

  • Farm background and future development featuring Dermot McAleese
  • Silage analysis and winter feeding management practices featuring Rachel Megarrell
  • Pre-lambing feeding and rising ration costs featuring Brian Hanthorn
Developing a Sustainable System

Event 9 topics include:

  • Farm plan and future direction
  • Lambing 2022 including discussion on outdoor lambing
  • Health planning 
Coming out the right side of a difficult year

Event 10 topics include:

  • Farm background and future development featuring James McCay
  • Silage analysis results and winter feeding plans
  • Pre-lambing feeding and rising ration costs featuring Jack Friar