Sheep farmers can’t lose focus on technical performance as Brexit looms – Boyle

Farmers have been urged to focus on technical efficiencies as the challenge of Brexit looms on the horizon.

Addressing a full house at the Teagasc National Sheep Conference in Co. Galway, Teagasc director Prof. Gerry Boyle said: “The national statistics show that there are about 36,000 sheep flocks in Ireland and there has been a steady increase in ewe numbers over the past few years.

“Currently, the national flock stands at about 2.6 million. Last year, 67,000t of sheepmeat – valued at more than €320 million – was produced. Of course, most of this was destined for export markets.”

He continued: “Last year was a phenomenal year in terms of exports; there was a growth in volume of about 14% and a 12% increase in value. By any measure, that’s excellent performance.”

Brexit

Boyle also touched on the challenges that Brexit poses, adding: “We are all aware of the problems with sterling and the pressure that it’s putting on Irish lamb on both the British and continental European markets.

“The increase in the value of exports partially reflects the expansion of the national flock and also the expansion of new export markets for Irish sheepmeat.

“New markets – particularly in Canada and Switzerland – are very much needed in the context of the need to diversify our market outlets; these markets will become increasingly important as the Brexit situation becomes clearer.”

He added: “The improvement in lamb prices in recent years, combined with the development of new export markets, will all suggest that this year should be a good year for the Irish sheep industry.

As always, there’s never room for complacency. Brexit is obviously something we are all concerned with as an exporting country.

25% of Irish lamb is dependent on the UK market; it’s hugely important that the outcome of Brexit is as close as possible to the current trading arrangements.

“However, inside the farm gate, technical performance in terms of ewe productivity, grassland management, nutrition and flock health are all important drivers of profitability. They have to be sustained and they have to be the focus of all of the producers of sheep; particularly in times of uncertainty.”

Room to improve

The Teagasc head also touched on data from the Teagasc National Farm Survey (NFS), which showed that an average gross margin of €595/ha for lowland, mid-season lambing flocks was achieved in 2016.

However, he said, the top 33% of flocks generated a gross margin of €1,329/ha compared to €268/ha for the bottom 33% of flocks

“There is significant room for improvement in terms of generating additional income from your sheep flock,” he said.

The differences can be linked to higher lamb weaning and stocking rates. It is possible and we have evidence from our Better Farm Sheep Programme and from the performance of discussion group farmers that improvement is possible by pursuing a financial farm plan.

“There has been a lot of information produced by Teagasc and other bodies over the years. There is no shortage of information; but, there is a shortage of sufficient uptake and implementation of the information that’s out there on how it’s possible to improve farm income,” he said.

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