Sheep focus: ‘To make a living out of sheep, you need to have output’

John Renehan runs a commercial and pedigree sheep breeding operation in Johnstown, Co. Kilkenny. The farm encompasses 170ac – 50ac of which is under forestry, 6ac under wild bird cover and 27ac are a combination of traditional hay meadow and multi-species grassland.

After taking the reins of the business in 1998, John has spent the past 20 years growing a thriving business that’s dominated by a commercial flock of Belclare cross Suffolk ewes and a pedigree flock of Belclare ewes. As it stands, the farm is home to 370 ewes and 150 ewe lambs.

AgriLand recently visited the Kilkenny-based holding to see how John has grown the business over the years and to hear about the bumps in the road along the way.

One such bump occurred in 2002 when the flock was depopulated with scrapie. At this point, John developed a suckler enterprise.

I was out of sheep for two years and I got into cattle. I kept sucklers up to four years ago and I wound them down because I found it very hard to make money out of them.

“I am set up for sheep; there’s money to be made if you’ve good output and a reasonable stocking rate, but you need to have the output if you want to make a living out of sheep,” he explained.

Texel issues

Up until last year, John also operated a pedigree flock of 70 Texel ewes. However, due to Texel throat, this enterprise has been sidelined and just 18 pedigree ewes remain on the farm.

“This year I am down to 370 ewes and 150 ewe lambs. I was breeding pedigree Texels and I had a flock of 70 females here last summer.

John Renahan pictured with some of his pedigree Belclare ewes

“I am down to 18 now because I had fierce trouble with Texel throat (laryngeal chrondrosis), so I’ve stopped breeding them. The Texels I have left were mated to a Charollais ram last year.

It was a shocking blow financially to be honest because I was building up the Texels since I bought my first ewe in 1993 while I was in secondary school.

“Texel throat is a problem in the Texel breed, but there’s not many people talking about it. It was caused by two rams; they brought the problem into the flock. The other breeds were running side by side and there was no problem whatsoever.”

Touching on the symptoms of Texel throat, John explained: “It’s like a severe form of pneumonia and it happens in the larynx.

“Nodules start growing in the larynx and they begin to obstruct the windpipe; eventually infection and septicemia form.

“I’ve done a lot of work with the Regional Veterinary Laboratory, Sheep Ireland and UCD over the last year to try and see could we get somewhere.

“I’ve kept some ewe lambs last year out of different rams that didn’t cause the problem. I’m hoping before they’re bred out of the farm that we can find a solution or find sheep that a genetically resistant to Texel throat.

It’s a long road and hopefully we can find a solution. I stopped selling rams to people when I had the first couple of cases.

“I still hope to be selling rams in 30 years; if you pass on bad animals to people, they won’t come back to you.

“Full-time farmers, who are reliant on making an income from sheep, can’t afford to take chances. In my opinion, if you have a problem, you try and sort it out before you start selling again. Your name is your business,” he noted.

Going down the Belclare route

Away from the Texels, the Renehan family began to breed pedigree Belclare sheep in 1990.

“We bought our first two rams and I bought a ewe lamb back in 1990 at the Premier Sale. I hadn’t even the Junior Certificate completed and Teagasc was selling one ewe lamb and I bought her.

“What attracted me to the Belclare was the prolificacy and output. They’re not as pampered as other breeds and they’re still a commercially driven breed.

“They’re a very profitable breed at the minute and they were developed to be prolific. With the Texels, I found it very hard to get past 1.3-1.4 lambs alive; you just haven’t got the output. With the Belclares, you have the output.”

John’s mantra on breeding Belclare rams is simple; he wants to produce a ‘beefy’ animal that’s strong for maternal traits. However, he also places a major focus on the accuracy of the star ratings of his rams.

To help improve the accuracy, John is involved in Sheep Ireland’s RamPlus programme. The purpose of this programme is to increase the genetic linkage between all the recording flocks within each breeding year and to help further increase the rate of genetic gain within the breed.

“The Belclare ewes are artificially inseminated with fresh semen as part of RamPlus. My farm is used as a central location for AI and it’s important for linking flocks within the Belclare breed so that the figures become more accurate,” John explained.

The commercials

The majority of the ewes on John’s farm are commercials and they’re mainly Belclare cross Suffolk ewes.

On the breeding policy, he said: “Good, black Suffolk ewes are put to a Belclare ram and the best of those Belclare cross Suffolk ewes – as they get older – are put pack to a Suffolk ram to breed the next generation.

“It’s a criss-cross breeding programme and I’ve found it’s the best option. I know the Suffolks tend to be a bit dirty and aren’t as vigorous at birth; but, when they’re crossed with the Belclare, it seems to work well.

“You are getting the output and you need output to make a living out of sheep farming. The scan was 2.03 lambs per ewe joined to the ram last year – across the commercial and pedigree flocks – and there’s 1.79 lambs per ewe alive at the moment.

“There were a good few lost; it was one of the worst springs in a long number of years, but when you have bigger crops you are going to have bigger losses. I’d still be hoping to get 1.75 lambs per ewe joined, but there’s no guarantee.”

Marketing lambs and rams

The majority of John’s commercial lambs are marketed through Tynan Meats – a local butcher in Johnstown – which supplies butcher shops, restaurants and supermarkets in Kilkenny.

“I castrate my ram lambs at birth, but there’s a certain amount of the pedigrees that wouldn’t make the grade so they have to go for slaughter.

“From last August on, the ram lambs go to Kildare Chilling. The vast majority of my cull ewes go to Kildare Chilling – once the price is right.

“A lot of the ewe lambs would be sold on to farmers for breeding because they’re Belclare crosses and they’re well sought after.”

When it comes to marketing rams, John explained that the majority of Belclare rams are sold from the yard and he’s had a good few enquiries already this year.

“I would generally go to two sales, the Premier Sale – which is held in Kilkenny every year – and the Sheep Ireland sale in Tullamore.

“I think the Sheep Ireland sale is vital for exposure to new customers. It’s a very good sale and I’m big into figures and performance recording.

By going to the Sheep Ireland sale, which is a 5-star ram sale only, you’re getting exposure. The Premier Sale is a good sale too, but there’s more and more commercial farmers going to the Sheep Ireland sale now because they can get all the breeds of rams they want on one day.

John is also chairman of Kilkenny Pedigree Sheep Breeders, which holds three sales each year.

“Belclares wouldn’t be as good a sell there; but when I had Texels I used to go. You can sell a Suffolk, Texel or Charollais ram at any crossroads really; but with Belclares, somebody has made a conscious decision to breed their own replacements and they’re going to go early to get the best ram they can get,” he concluded.