Attention turns to Athenry for Sheep Week

Image Credit: Sinéad Mohan

Noel Bardon synopsizes the 2020 virtual Sheep Week

The Teagasc Virtual Sheep Week commenced on Monday, September 21st from the Sheep Research Centre Athenry, with the aim of sharing up-to-date flock management information with farmers and advisors. Daily hour-long webinars covering all aspects of Irish sheep production replaced the annual Athenry Sheep Open Day, which had originally been scheduled for June, due to government coronavirus restrictions. Different farm-centred topics were discussed by each of the five panels with researchers, industry professionals, and Teagasc Better Sheep Farmers all contributing throughout the week. 

The online event began on Monday with the discussion centring on the grassland management of sheep farms. John O’Connell, farmer panellist and former IGA Sheep Grassland Farmer of the Year, examined the path to higher outputs available to producers through correction of soil fertility issues, the use of grass measuring technologies, and the implementation of temporary electric fencing systems. The importance of following through with an autumn rotation planner was highlighted as an essential component of good grassland management. “Know when you have pushed your limits and know when you have reached your target, that’s it” stressed Micheál O’Leary of Pasturebase Ireland, when referencing the 77 kg DM/ha drop in opening grass covers seen for each week of delay in closing. 

The importance of white clover in reducing input costs, as well as improving overall system sustainability, was covered by Philip Creighton, researcher at Athenry Animal & Grassland Research and Innovation Centre. The findings of ongoing clover trials under differing N regimes were discussed, with the data cited giving confidence to farmers in their decisions on its inclusion in swards on sheep farms. Creighton expressed optimism for the herbage production of the lower N treatments matching that of the higher N as a “very positive result”, whilst stressing the “major implications from both the financial and environmental point of view”. 

The week’s Tuesday proceedings covered flock breeding with the accompanying topic of genetics. Eamonn Wall of Sheep Ireland discussed the current situation regarding the performance recording of production relevant traits along different strata of the breeding pyramid. Emphasis was placed on the recording of data around the busy lambing period when it can be difficult for farmers to allocate labour to performance recording. Aine O’Brien of Teagasc Moorepark covered the complexities encountered when improving low-heritability traits, such as mothering ability or lamb vigour, which, while these traits may be largely swayed by environmental factors, do have scope for genetic improvement. 

Over 50% of Sheep Ireland’s performance data recorded  now comes from commercial flocks, improving the robustness of the Euro-Star index across various production systems.

Wednesday saw focus turn to the increased profitability of hill flocks. Wicklow farmer, Patrick Dunne, explained the steps taken in the overhaul of his system over the last number of years. A plan focused on returning ewes to the hill for a greater proportion of the year has seen output drop, but margins grow, as costs are greatly reduced. Technical advice was provided by Teagasc officials Frank Campion and John Cannon, both involved in different capacities in the Teagasc Better Farm programme. Weight was given to the importance of condition scoring ewes at important stages of the production cycle. The potential benefits to hill farmers in crossing ewes to non-hill sires to improve lamb price at sale received attention. The increasing demand for half-bred breeding sheep from lowland farmers nationwide, in particular, was noted by Cannon, who advises farmers in Co. Donegal, as a means of increasing revenue in the late summer months.

The health conversation on Thursday saw the panel consider the subjects of anthelmintic resistance, iceberg diseases, and mineral supplementation. Researcher Orla Keane advised farmers on maintaining the efficacy of dewormers and minimising the chance of a loss in the ability of current chemicals to control worm populations. 

Tim Keady gave an update on the findings of the status of mineral deficiencies of herbage grazed by sheep flocks, in tests carried out on a sample of farms representative of the differing soil types of the country. Unsurprisingly to many, he noted that 75% of farms surveyed had forage Cobalt deficiencies with the remaining 25% showing only marginal levels of the nutrient essential for the thrive of lambs in particular. This study also found, however, that none of the farms tested had low enough copper levels to be classified as deficient and in need of supplementation. 

The prevailing message throughout the week was for farmers to make science-based decisions in flock management. Tools and technologies are widely accessible at justifiable costs, be it around ewe nutrition, soil fertility, or genetic improvement.

Agricultural policy and the environment formed the central subjects of the final webinar. Those who had tuned in heard opening remarks from Minister for State Pippa Hackett. The Junior Minister’s comments were for the main part optimistic in their detailing of the opportunities available to sheep farmers through efforts promoting biodiverse land-use and carbon sequestering grazing management of marginal lands. 

Kevin Hanrahan, Head of Rural Economy Development Programme, outlined the reasons behind a rise in lamb prices. A Europe-wide drop in demand following the Coronavirus pandemic was offset by lower lamb imports from outside the Union, owing to the increased need for imported protein in China following African Swine Fever culls.

The Virtual Sheep Week had good levels of engagement from farmers, who asked questions via the comment sections of their chosen viewing platform during the webinars. It has yet to be seen whether issues arose around older, less tech-savvy farmers being able to access the week’s content, illustrating the need for a continuation of traditional methods of communication such as print and demonstration days for full reach.