Developing systems for finishing hill-bred store lambs

Hill sheep and store lamb finishing is the topic for discussion today (Wednesday, September 23) as part of the Teagasc Virtual Sheep Week.

Hill sheep farming is carried out on a diverse range of land quality and farming systems and plays a vital role in Irish agriculture and also in the maintenance of delicate landscapes.

Productivity in many of these flocks is typically low. However, with the appropriate management and breeding changes, increased productivity and profitability is possible.

Hill-bred ewes account for approximately 31% of the national ewe flock with a further 18% being hill-breed crosses. This sector is reliant on store lamb finishers to provide an outlet for the hill lamb crop and as such the two sectors go hand in hand when looking at the research and technology developments in these areas.

Join Teagasc’s live interactive webinar this evening at 7:00pm with specialists, researchers and guest speakers on:; or Teagasc Facebook; or follow #VirtualSheepWeek on social media for information and advice on increasing productivity and profitability in hill sheep and store lamb finishing systems.

This evenings panel discussion will be led by Professor Michael Diskin, Sheep Enterprise Leader, Teagasc Athenry, with panellists Frank Campion, Teagasc Athenry; John Cannon, Teagasc, Letterkenny; and special guests Brendan Joyce, hill sheep farmer and Chair of the Atlantic Hill Group; and Patrick Dunne, BETTER Sheep Farmer, Co. Wicklow.

Frank will discuss the results from Teagasc Athenry on finishing hill and crossbred lambs. John will outline the options for improving the efficiency of hill sheep systems including crossbreeding.

Brendan Joyce will share how the Atlantic Hill Lamb Group, working closely with the meat industry group, has developed a market for light finished hill lambs and market specification for producing these light lambs.

Patrick Dunne will talk about how his farming system is split between a lowland and hill system.

Topics covered today include

Increasing weaning %

The steps taken to improve output in hill flocks in the Teagasc BETTER farm sheep programme will be discussed today.

Typically average output from hill flocks is 0.8 lambs weaned per ewe joined. However, through better management this can be improved substantially.

Research carried out by Teagasc has demonstrated the importance of improving ewe condition and weight at joining. This centres on a management plan for the flock and the farm.

The results coming from the work on the BETTER Farm Hill flocks clearly shows that it is possible to increase ewe output to 1.1 lambs per ewe. This improvement has also been shown to be economically advantageous.

For hill flocks the aim should be to have ewes in a condition score of 3 at ram joining and with a target mature weight of 45kg for ‘harder’ hills and 50kg for those with greener hills with access to lowland areas.

Cross breeding

For the majority of hill flocks (weaning 0.8 lambs per ewe or greater) unless they have a specific market for ‘pure’ females there is potential for more crossbreeding.

There are many benefits from crossbreeding including prolific females, more saleable and heavier lambs and better lamb performance. The potential for crossbreeding within each flock depends on the replacement requirement and the existing level of ewe and flock productivity.

Today, we’ll be sharing a guideline for the percentage of a flock that is required for producing replacements.

Store lamb finishing

Research has shown that hill-bred lambs are highly responsive to improved nutrition post-weaning, and as such are a viable option when looking at lambs for purchasing for store lamb finishing systems. This research has led to the development of blueprints for finishing lambs on all-concentrate diets.

Special guest Michael Duffy, a Donegal sheep farmer, will join this evening’s webinar along with his Teagasc advisor John Cannon to share his experiences finishing store lambs.

Results from ongoing research investigating the potential for finishing hill lambs from forage-based diets such as grazed grass, forage rape, kale and hybrid brassicas will also be showcased.

Light lamb finishing systems

While the store lamb trade is the main outlet for hill-bred lambs, the option to finish some lambs to lighter weights of 12-16kg is an option that provides hill farmers with an alternative outlet, particularly when store lamb prices are comparatively low.

While very much a specialised system that requires prior-contracts, the potential to finish hill lambs to suitably finished carcasses will be discussed.

This work has also led to the development of markets for these types of light lamb carcasses. Also during the day there will be a short video discussing the bio-security protocols used by Teagasc Athenry when purchasing these lambs which will be relevant to anyone purchasing store lambs.

BETTER Farm Hill Sheep Programme

The Teagasc BETTER farm hill sheep programme is an important part of the Teagasc hill sheep research and knowledge transfer programmes and results from this programme will feature strongly in this evening’s webinar.

Patrick Dunne, Sheep BETTER farm participant in the Wicklow Mountains, will discuss his farming system and how it has changed over the past number of years from the original Cheviot ewe hill flock that were run essentially as a lowland system to his current ewe flock split between a lowland and hill system.

Hear how the change in system has allowed him to increase overall numbers and generate a higher output lowland flock.

This change in system has come about by reducing costs in the hill system, increasing the time hill ewes spend on the hill and a strict culling and selection procedure to select a more suitable ewe for the flock.

These are issues faced by many hill sheep farmers currently and Patrick’s story to-date provides an insight into some of the potential solutions to these problems.

For more information on Virtual Sheep Week, visit: