Irregardless of the farming sector, one of the toughest tasks being faced is bringing enthusiastic, young people into the fold. However, one area that seems to be breaking the mould is pedigree sheep breeding and especially Suffolk sheep breeding.

AgriLand recently sat down with three young breeders to hear their thoughts on sheep farming and what they’d change if they were given the opportunity.

The next generation to enter the fray

Long associated with success in the show and sales rings, Mallow’s O’Keeffe family has been synonymous with Suffolk breeding for decades; Patrick O’Keeffe is the next generation to enter the fray.

“I’ve been raised up with Suffolk sheep. My father has them and my grandfather had them, so I was just born into them,” Patrick said.

Everyone has their own opinions on different breeds and every breed has its pros and cons; I just happen to like Suffolks.

“I find Suffolks easy to work with. Some people have a perception that Suffolks are dopey when they are born; there are lazy Suffolks, but I think it’s wrong to paint them all with the one brush.

“We’d lamb a couple of hundred ewes at home and if the lambs were slow to get going that would be a disaster for us. If they don’t get up and start sucking at home, we haven’t the room to be minding them.

“We’ve 150 dairy cows and a couple of hundred sheep and we just haven’t the time to get every lamb to suck,” he explained.

When it comes to problems with the breed, Patrick said: “For a few years, breeders were all about big heads and legs and the Suffolk breed lost its carcass.

“The breed is definitely focusing more on carcass again and the heads and bone are not as extreme as they once were.

I think that’s a big positive. A couple of fancy prices are achieved every year, but the bread and butter is the commercial trade.

“If you’re not breeding rams suitable for commercial farmers, they’re a dead duck because that’s the bulk of the trade. The rams have to be suitable.”

Along with breeding pedigree Suffolks, Patrick plays a key role in the family’s Annakisha Texel Flock.

When questioned why they keep sheep of two competing breeds, he said: “The Texels would traditionally be a well-shaped sheep, but they don’t weigh as well as the Suffolk. Now, I think, the Texels have made serious strides in terms of weight gain and are closing the gap.

“From year-to-year, however, with the Texels and Suffolks, one will have a good year and one will have a bad year and that’s purely down to ewes getting too white or too black. If a farmer’s ewes are getting too white he/she will go for a Suffolk ram; if the ewes are getting too black, he/she will go for the Texel.

“It’s in moderation. Some people buy both a Suffolk and Texel ram and let the Suffolk off with the whiter ewes and the Texel off with the blacker ewes,” he said.

New entrants to Suffolk sheep breeding

It was through an admiration of the Suffolk breed in their commercial flock that brought Kilkenny’s Quinlan family to the decision of commencing a pedigree Suffolk flock.

From Paulstown, David Quinlan – a student at Borris Vocational School – is actively involved in the family’s sheep and beef farm.

Commenting on his involvement with the Suffolk breed, he said: “We are only breeding Suffolks a few years and we have 13 pedigree ewes.

We always had sheep and we liked Suffolks, so we said we’d try a few pedigrees. They’re fierce animals to finish and when you cross them, you can’t beat them for meat.

To further grow the flock, David is trying embryo transplant for the first time this year.

“Instead of buying a dear ewe, you could have one dear ewe and make her produce to her maximum. We’ll have less pedigree ewes and more pedigree lambs.”

When it comes to weaknesses, David feels that the way some farmers present their sheep for sales is a negative.

“The lambs are kind of getting very fake now with trimming and a lot of farmers don’t know what they are buying. To make it a level playing field, we should look at letting rams into sales as they stand in the field.”

The balance between work and farming

Currently a fourth year engineering student in the University of Limerick, Brian Pearse is hoping to find full-time employment close to home once his studies are completed. This will allow him to remain actively involved in the family’s sheep and beef farm.

Breeding under the Priorview Suffolks prefix, Brian said: “My father started with pedigree Suffolks in 1992, when he bought a ewe lamb off the Jefferies and I’ve grown up with Suffolks.

“I’ve seen them change over the years and they’ve gone to a taller, more framed sheep, with bigger legs and heads.

“Some of the lambs could do with a bit more carcass; but some of the lambs have a very good carcass and that’s what the factory buyers want and that’s the direction any sheep breed should take.

The main point I want to highlight to farmers is – when you’re buying a ram, make sure you buy a fleshy ram and the head is not too big.

“If you put your hand on the ram’s back and you can feel the backbone, that ram’s not going to produce fleshy lambs.”

When it comes to the Clare-based operation, the family currently has 40 pedigree ewes. Over recent years, they’ve twice travelled to Scotland to purchase stock rams.

“We sell ram lambs in sales in the west, such as Roscommon. Every weekend after the Premier Show and Sale, we’re selling rams and hopefully there’s customers for them this year after the summer we’ve just had.

“The pedigree trade is going to maintain and there’s going to be some big prices; but we need to maintain the commercial trade as well so that the commercial farmers might want to buy off Suffolk breeders.

“The heads may have got too big, but that’s driven by showing and looks. The entire breed isn’t suffering with that problem and if breeders could keep the head smaller that would help.”