Improving hill flock productivity and profitability in Donegal

On Wednesday last (February 17), David McLaughlin a participant in the Better Farm Sheep Programme spoke at the Teagasc Hill Sheep Conference.

David was joined by his Teagasc advisor John Cannon on the night to discuss how the farm has progressed since joining the programme in 2008.

David runs both a hill and lowland flock of ewes as well as keeping 17 autumn-calving suckler cows.

The farm is broken up into three main blocks, consisting of both hill and lowland (green) ground.

The breakdown is as follows: 

  • Home farm: 9.55 adjusted hectares (green land/improved hill ground);
  • Hill farm: 14.74 adjusted hectares (green land/improved hill) and 120ha of hill;
  • Outfarm: 17ha adjusted (lowland block).

The farm system David and his family runs comprises of a hill and lowland flock as mentioned already. The hill flock is made up of 250 Lanark-type ewes that lamb from April 5 onwards. While the lowland system consists of 120 ewes. Lambing commences for the lowland flock from March 17 onwards.

Hill sheep system

David’s flock of 250 Lanark-type ewes are further broken into two groups. Approximately 190 of them are mated with a Lanark ram with some of the ewe lambs bred kept as replacements for the hill flock, while the other 60 are joined to a Belclare ram in order to produce 30-35 replacements for the lowland flock on the farm.

Some of the Lanark ewes (generally last crop ewes) are joined with a Bluefaced Leicester ram to produce ewe lambs for the Donegal Mule sale also. Any lambs not intended for breeding are either sold as stores or finished.

David has facilities to finish lambs indoors. Ram lambs, intended for finishing, are generally introduced to meal in September with the aim of having the last of them gone before Christmas.

In the table (below) the progress David has made since joining the programme, in terms of flock productivity over the last 12 years is illustrated.

Looking at the data collected in the (above) table, the figures that stick out most are probably the increase in litter size and the number of lambs reared to ewes mated over the years.

David mentioned the importance of having ewes in good condition throughout the year but picked mating time as a particularly key time saying that a ewe in good condition will give you more lambs, which will obviously help to increase the profitability of the farm if that lamb can be reared and either sold on or finished.

The final slide of the presentation and the most important to farmers is the profitability of both the lowland and hill flocks on David’s farm from when he started in the programme in 2008 to the present time.

It’s important to note that the gross margin figures don’t include farm payments. As well as that, the main variable costs are mainly feed, fertiliser, veterinary and contracting costs – which are typical of most farming enterprises in the country.

John pointed out that the main reasons for the increase in gross margins, as seen in the table (above) were down to an increase in lambs weaned per ewe, increasing lamb prices, and an increase in the stocking rate from eight/ewes/ha to 10/ewes/ha in the lowland flock.

John highlighted at the end that the important points from the programme in relation to David’s farm, that drove the increase in productivity were the breeding plan, the ewes’ body condition – especially at mating time – and the grassland management plan which involved utilising the hill as much as possible.