Sheep focus: Maximising production from every hectare

Farming almost 88ha, John Large has always adopted a progressive approach to new initiatives helping drive the sheep industry forward. He’s one of the Central Progeny Test (CPT) flocks working with Sheep Ireland and is one of the original participants in the programme.

The farm is home to a flock of 630 ewes, 160 ewe lambs and a suckler enterprise of 35 autumn-calving cows.  The sheep system makes up the main part of the farming enterprise, with all progeny – excluding replacements – taken to finish under a high-output system.

Earlier this week, John opened the gates of his farm in Co. Tipperary as part of the Irish Grassland Association Sheep Conference and Farm Walk, which was sponsored by MSD Animal Health and Mullinahone Co-op.

The farm is divided into three separate parcels of 24.2ha (the home farm), 24ha (0.5km away) and 39.5ha (17km away in Co. Kilkenny).

The stocking rate is quite high on the farm and every hectare is expected to pull its weight. The sheep enterprise is stocked at the equivalent of 12 ewes per hectare, while the cattle system is stocked at 2.8LU/ha (livestock units per hectare).

John Large speaking to delegates at the farm walk


John has been a participant in Sheep Ireland’s CPT programme since 2009 and now there are 140 sires (both sires and grandsires) represented in the breeding flock.

As one of the four farmers involved in the programme, John is required to breed his ewes through AI and record data on the resulting progeny.

Last year, 21 rams were used to mate the flock, including: Charollais; Texel; Belclare; Suffolk; and Vendeen tups. Laparoscopic AI was used and, for this, the flock was split into two batches, which are mated two days apart. The conception rate to AI last season was 72%.

From this, female progeny are retained from each sire to evaluate maternal traits. If a ram is used to AI 40 ewes, 10 ewe lambs are retained.

Post AI, the flock is split into three mating groups and teams of rams (Charollais and Texel) are introduced to pick up any repeats. These rams remain with the flock for a six-week period.

The scanning performance on John’s farm was good last year and the ewes carried 2.05 lambs per ewe joined.

Lambing ewe lambs

Along with lambing a flock of 630 ewes, John retained 180 ewe lambs last year. Out of these, 160 were turned out with the ram.

Easy-lambing Charollais and Texel tups were used to mate these replacements for a six-week period and a scanned litter size of 1.24 lambs per ewe lamb joined was achieved; the conception rate stood at 86.5%.

John hopes to wean 0.9-1.0 lambs from each of these ewe lambs and they lambed down with the repeats from the main flock. However, the ewe lambs are managed as a separate flock throughout the grazing season. When it comes to mating, weight is hugely important and John sets a target of 48kg at joining.

Yearling ewe targets:
  • Number joined: 160;
  • Scanned litter size: 1.24 lambs per ewe lamb joined;
  • Pregnancy rate: 86.5%;
  • Target weaning rate: 0.9-1 lambs per ewe lamb joined.

Managing lambing

As mentioned above, John uses AI to mate the majority of the ewes in the flock and, as a result, lambing can be quite compact with a lot of ewes lambing over a two-week period.

When it comes to help at lambing time, John commented: “We had two at night and we had five – at least – during the day; two of them were solely tagging and recording lambs.

The labour input is wickedly intense for the two weeks; but you know the ewes are going to lamb in two weeks, so you can judge your feeding for a really short space of time.

“You can get your ewes in good order and you can ensure they have plenty of milk. If you can get those two things right, it’s a big help; the ewe has milk and the lamb is strong enough to suck and that reduces the labour requirement.”

John aims to sell 1.6 lambs per ewe joined from the mature ewe flock. On this, he said: “It’s not easy. We scanned at 2.05 lambs per ewe joined and we’ve lost 10-12% already (including abortions, lambing losses and losses post-turnout).

If we can sell 1.60-1.65 lambs per ewe, I’d be happy.

Within the 24-hour period around lambing, John recorded a lamb mortality rate of 3.8%. Up to the 40-day weighing, the mortality rate stood at 7.8%. Once again, this figure excludes lambs lost to abortions.

When compared to other farms, John’s lambing difficulty figures are high at 23% in 2018 and 31% in 2017. However, the 24-hour cover and careful monitoring feeds into this figure.

“When you are lambing like we are, you can foster on triplet lambs onto singles. We are wet fostering them on and you generally have to lamb the single, so that probably drives that up a bit,” he noted.

Another aspect that’s monitored on the farm is 40-day weights and at day 46, John’s lambs weighed 17.3kg (across triplets, singles and doubles) and the ewes weighed 71.7kg.

Grassland management

Paddocks play a central role on John’s business and the farm is divided into a number of grazing divisions. The home farm (24.2ha) is split into 16 separate grazing segments – ranging from 0.5ha up to 2.16ha.

During the grazing season, temporary fences are used to make the maximum use of grass; if surpluses are present, they’re taken out as bales. As it stands, John’s farm has an average farm cover (AFC) of 1,030kg/ha.

To manage grass to the best of his abilities, ewes and lambs are split into eight grazing groups up until weaning. The groups consist of: a group of CPT ewes with twin lambs; a group of CPT ewes with single lambs; three groups of ewes with singles and twins; two groups of yearling ewes; and a problem group.

Post-weaning, the lambs are split into three bunches. A heavy bunch of lambs (approximately 160 lambs) are ran on the home farm and concentrate is introduced to achieve the desired fat score. A further two groups – including a medium group and a light group – are also carried.

As lambs are drafted out of the heavy group, lambs from the medium group are transitioned up to the heavy group and this ensures that John is only offering meal to one group of lambs at any one time.

I am constantly feeding only about 150 lambs and meal is used to get lambs from a fat score of 2 to a fat score of 3. They only get meal for about a month and they’re at least 40kg before I feed them.

In October, a bunch of 200-250 lambs are moved to a catch crop following winter barley (10-12ac). From there, the majority of lambs are sent to slaughter. Moving these lambs away frees up grass and allows John to move the cows back to the home farm to calve.

Once this has been grazed, any lambs that are not yet finished are grouped with the remaining lambs on the farm and are moved to a catch crop following spring barley. At this point, concentrate is introduced.

All of John’s lambs are marketed through the Offaly Producer Group and an average carcass weight of 20.5kg was achieved during 2017. 50% of the lambs were drafted for slaughter by October 1 last year.

Like the lambs, the ewes are also split into three groups post-weaning and one mob follows the lambs to clean out the paddocks.

“The lambs get the best of the grass and the ewes are used to clean up afterwards,” John noted.

The beef enterprise

Alongside running the sheep enterprise, John also has an autumn-calving suckler enterprise of 35 Limousin and Angus-cross cows. All of the female progeny are brought to slaughter, while bulls are sold to a local finisher at 10 months.

Because there’s a limited number of hours in the day, John has opted to calve the herd in October. This spreads the workload and – in most years – it means that the cows can be joined to an Angus bull whilst outdoors.

Touching on the beef enterprise, John said: “The bulls are sold directly onto another farmer and the heifers are finished on the farm.

“Nearly all of the heifers are sold to a wholesale butcher and he’d take five or six at a time; they’d go from July until September or October.

I calve in September or October and the cows will come back to calve beside the house. That’s one of the bonuses of using an Angus bull; I don’t have much work with them.

“It’s a very low-input system and I’ve no interest in calving big calves or getting up in the middle of the night to calve cows. It’s the system that suits me because I wouldn’t have time or housing to calve them in the spring.”

John weans all of the calves before they’re turned out to grass in the spring time and, at this point, the bull weanlings are sold to a local finisher.

“I replace the bulls with store heifers and they’re finished at two years. The majority of the heifers are finished off grass and I’d say we fed the last six last year,” he said.