The recent Irish Grassland Association (IGA) sheep farm walk held on the farm of mother-and-son duo, Margaret and Jack Stevenson, in Liscooley, Co Donegal, attracted over 300 farmers keen to gain a first-hand view of the high-performing enterprise.

The farming system run by the Stevensons was covered in detail on the sheep pages a couple of weeks ago, with this article summarising the key practices and take-home messages that underpin performance.

To briefly recap, the 68ha grassland farm runs a flock of over 570 mid-season lambing ewes and ewe lambs alongside a 29 cow suckler-to-weanling enterprise. The whole farm stocking rate is 2.28LU/ha (equivalent to 12 ewes/ha) or 153kg organic nitrogen/ha.

Concise planning

An overarching take-home message from the event is that meticulous planning lays the foundation for performance across all aspects of the business. The following are 10 standout messages from the day.

1 Don’t operate two flocks

Margaret says that a key focus on the farm is to keep management practices straightforward and to avoid a scenario of two flocks competing with each other.

As such, the aim is to have over 45% of lambs drafted by mid-August and over 60% by mid-September. This allows ewes to be prioritised in the run-in to mating and avoids lambs competing with ewes for valuable grass supplies.

Table 1 details the drafting pattern, average carcase weight and average price.

2 High output gives scope for positive financial performance

The number of lambs sold/retained as replacements per ewe is very impressive and has consistently averaged around 1.8 lambs per ewe joined.

Figures presented equate to 39kg carcase weight produced and an average lamb sales value per ewe of €247.

3 Optimising carcase weights

Margaret told the large crowd in attendance that one of her favourite tasks is drafting lambs for sale, adding that the first thing she does when she receives factory remittance is to check the volume of free meat delivered.

Irish Grassland Association sheep farm walk hosts Margaret Stevenson and Jack Stevenson, Co Donegal. \ Clive Wasson

Drafting takes place weekly during the peak season with lamb liveweights and killout performance closely monitored to ensure lambs kill close to maximum carcase weight allowances without going overweight.

Monitoring performance allows lambs with lower potential to reach maximum carcase weights to be drafted once daily gain has stagnated.

4 There is a place for strategic use of concentrates

Post-weaning ram lambs are batched into finishing groups with heavier ram lambs offered ad-lib concentrates. Margaret says that such lambs still have access to top-quality grass with ad-lib feeding tying in with labour availability and capitalising on exploiting terminal traits in lambs.

The cost of meal fed in 2023 was €24/ewe or €13 per lamb produced, significantly lower than typical levels.

A positive weaning weight (35.5kg in 2023) and tight spread in lamb liveweight provides the basis for fast finishing.

5 Sick animals won’t thrive

The focus in terms of animal health is very much prevention is better than cure.

A closed flock policy is practised with a robust quarantine protocol for purchased rams.

Vaccines are used strategically while faecal egg counts play a central role in controlling internal parasites.

There were no lame sheep visible in the flocks seen and low levels of lameness are attributed to regular footbathing.

Two batch footbaths are set up side by side at the end of the race on the handling unit. This allows handling to continue while a batch of sheep are being handled and keeps tasks running efficiently.

6 If you don’t measure you cannot monitor performance

Measures are put in place to monitor key areas of performance. This includes animal performance, grassland productivity, soil fertility, silage quality, etc.

If any area of performance is not up to scratch, then contributing factors are reviewed to get to the route of the issue.

The farm grew approximately 12t grass dry matter/ha in 2023 while silage typically tests in the mid-70s for dry matter digestibility. This is boosted by targeting a mid-May cutting day and taking surplus grass out of the rotation.

Margaret says: “If a dairy farmer can cut silage earlier, why can I not? Good silage will keep condition on stock and saves a lot of work in carrying buckets of meal.”

7 Feeding the soil

There is a renewed focus being placed on enhancing soil fertility. As can be seen in the charts below, a significant percentage of the farm is at index 1 and two for phosphorus (P) and potassium (K).

The farm’s adviser, Eoin Gallagher, explains that with annual rainfall in Donegal exceeding 1,400mm, it makes it more challenging to maintain soil pH and P/K at the desired status.

The latest soil samples identified that 300t of lime are required across 18 land parcels.

Applying lime will address soil pH while rectifying pH levels will also improve P/K status and the efficiency of applied nutrients.

Slurry and farmyard manure was traditionally applied on lands close to the yard, but more strategic use is now being made of this valuable nutrient source.

The farm applied 103kg chemical N/ha in 2023, 12kg P/ha and 23kg K/ha in 2023.

8 Reaping the rewards from mixed grazing

There are no hard rules employed when it comes to mixed grazing.

A batch of cows and calves run with a bull and a batch of cull cows and in-calf heifers are used as a grassland management tool.

These grazing groups are joined where needed with sheep to graze out paddocks quicker and help to maintain top-quality grass ahead of stock.

9 Tailor group size to paddock area

There are 32 fields/paddocks on the home farm and five divisions in the outfarm.

The average paddock size is 1.8ha (4.6 acres) and many paddocks can be subdivided, if required.

The preference, however, is to group sheep in batches of 90 to 100 ewes and their lambs.

This is viewed as the optimum number during the first half of the year to graze paddocks efficiently and avoid additional work with splitting paddocks/altering water infrastructure.

10 Be open to change

Margaret and her late husband, Nicholas, were big fans of attending farm walks, a passion now carried on with her son Jack.

The Stevensons’ humbly attribute many of the positive aspects of their farming system to knowledge they acquired when attending farm walks and events.

They have an open mind set to change and comment that to get the most out of a system you have to enjoy what you are doing.

This explains a minority of black-fleeced sheep scattered throughout the flock on the day, while another valuable takehome message is that decisions have to be made sometimes to best suit labour availability.

  • A firm focus on farm planning and an open mind set to change is laying the foundation for positive performance.
  • There is no store period with lambs, ensuring that lambs do not compete with ewes for grass.
  • The suckler herd is used strategically to manage grass while also boosting output.
  • Production from grass is driven by grazing management, grazing infrastructure and addressing soil fertility.