Steady as she goes where sheep numbers are concerned

Teagasc is predicting that the size of Ireland’s national sheep flock will, at best, remain at its current level – 2.4m breeding ewes – up to 2025.

The forecast is contained within the organisation’s recently published Road Map for the sector.

Ireland is the fourth largest sheep meat producer in the European Union (EU) but is the largest net exporter of sheepmeat.

With almost 83% of production exported, the sector remains heavily on markets in the UK and the rest of the EU.

The national flock has recently stabilised after contracting on an almost continual basis since 1993. Lowland enterprises account for about 80% of the ewe population and 85% of lamb carcass output.

Teagasc predicts that this dominance will continue. On most lowland farms, sheep production remains mainly a secondary enterprise.

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Supports needed for hill enterprises

The EU is currently 87% self-sufficient in sheep meat and this figure is projected to decline only marginally over the next ten years.

Teagasc forecasts a decline in sheep meat prices in the near term but to recover to close to 2015 levels by 2025.

By common consent, the industry would benefit from an agreed quality-based payment system for lamb carcasses.

Teagasc views the maintenance of current hill and mountain landscapes as important from tourism and environmental perspectives.

However, margins from hill lamb production are insufficient to maintain current levels of hill farming activity.

As a consequence, the provision of support to sheep farmers will be essential for the maintenance of current levels of hill sheep farming activity.

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Increased physical performance

According to Teagasc, the lowland sheep sector can achieve significant improvements in physical performance based on available technology.

The key indicators of this are ewe productivity and stocking rate. Lambs weaned per ewe joined can increase from the current level of 1.29 to 1.45 by 2025 through the exploitation of available genetic resources and better management practices.

Increasing the average stocking rate from 7.3 ewes per hectare currently, to 9.0 ewes per hectare by 2025, is also achievable.

The combination of these changes will increase average output per hectare from 191kg of lamb carcass per hectare to 260kg of lamb carcass per hectare by 2025, and generate an average gross margin of €740/ha at current prices and input costs.

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Where future research priorities are concerned, Teagasc points to the continuation and strategic expansion of an effective model for technology uptake through the BETTER Farm Sheep Programme.

This initiative identifies relevant research needs and the means of improving the adoption of technology on Irish sheep farms.

The BETTER Sheep Programme will be linked to an effective discussion group network to drive the adoption and development of more efficient production systems.

A stand alone research farm has been established at Athenry, demonstrating high profit, sustainable mid-season lamb production systems.

According to Teagasc, this research/demonstration farm will continue to demonstrate the gains in technical efficiency that can be achieved by Irish sheep producers through better breeding, grassland and other farm management practices.

sheep grazing system