Despite the environmental pressures on the national herd, Tommy Mullin says the suckler cow is key to his Malin Head sheep business.
With a suckler herd of 18 cows, all AI-bred, he says: “The cows are a critical part of my sheep system”.
The suckler herd is essential for turf cleaning and grass management on the farm, along with the benefits of mixed grazing for worm burden.
“Grass is a very difficult crop to manage – you either have too much or too little, and often too much grass is worse for sheep than too little,” says Tommy.
Tommy farms near Ireland’s most northerly point in Bree, Malin Head, Co. Donegal.
With 400 lowland ewes, 180 horn ewes and 120 retained spares, the farm has a significant stocking density given the Northwest weather.
Tommy’s flock consists of Suffolk x Texel ewes on the flatlands and Scottish Blackface ewes on the hill.
The mound is well used in the system, with horned ewes only being housed and kept in the home block for lambing before returning to summer grazing.
As a Sheep Ireland competitor, Tommy is adamant that he uses highly genetic breeding stock and runs 18 rams in Suffolk, Texel, Charollais and Vendéen, all with high index numbers.
Tommy farms full time with his three sons James, Andrew and Thomas, daughter Theresa and wife Kathleen.
The sons all work full-time away from the farm but do important work on weekends and evenings and during the lambing season.
Tommy says “another unit of labor is required,” but the economics of raising sheep make that unlikely.
Grassland management is key to the profitability of any farming system, but this year has brought with it weather-related challenges.
“March did well, which helped us,” says Tommy, whose lowland flock lambs start running March 1st.
Grass growth was sporadic in Donegal, with grass sprouting 10 days earlier than other years and silage difficult to store in the right conditions.
Tommy is happy to have his silo pit full, with some excess also being baled to leave a cushion for the winter months.
Given the difficult growing conditions, he prioritizes his most important herd batch, weaning his lambs and grazing them on the best covers available on the farm.
Despite the difficulties with rising costs, he is not planning “any major drastic changes” for the future.
He spread enough fertilizer to get his silage in, with a little less spreading in the pasture, which has kept enough grass in front of the crop so far.
Tommy describes how investments in infrastructure and handling facilities over the past 20 years have made a huge difference to his system.
“It’s about making things easier,” he says.
Biodiversity is also taken into account on the farm.
As a participant in an upland program, Tommy has planted 700 trees and 200 meters of hedges over the last 12 months, which not only benefits the environment but also provides valuable shelter for his lamb flock during the harsh spring days.
Tommy Doherty is a business and technology consultant at Teagasc in Ballybofey, Co. Donegal
https://www.independent.ie/business/farming/sheep/advice/why-a-small-suckler-herd-is-key-to-this-donegal-sheep-farmers-success-41838859.html Why a small herd of suckler cows is key to the success of this Donegal sheep farmer