The 65 crossbred ewes that make up the lowland flock at Paul Boyle’s farm in Curraghfeehan, Bruckless, Co Donegal are in the final stages of the mating season.
They are grown on 8 ha (20 ac) of medium quality land near the village of Dunkineely.
Paul runs his Hill flock of Scottish Blackface ewes on a separate block of land 25km away – a combination of private and shared hill grazing and an adjacent area of improved grassland.
BCS when mating
As with all participants in the Teagasc Sheep BETTER farm program, all lowland and hill sheep are weighed and body condition assessed before the rams are grazed.
The lowland ewes were mated with Suffolk and Belclare rams on 22 October with the plan to keep female offspring from the Belclare sire as productive surrogates. This lambing date will be moved to better align the start of grass growth at Dunkineely Farm.
In the last two years there has been a notable improvement in the BCS of the lowland flock, mainly due to better management of thinner ewes for at least 10 weeks before mating.
The average BCS increased from 3.0 in 2020 to 3.4 in 2022. The percentage of lowland sheep coming below 3.0 has also dropped dramatically, from 44 to 14.5 percent.
This is a useful number to focus on, as averages can be deceptive, which Paul aims to further reduce to below 10 percent.
Herd management during and after mating
Mating is closely monitored, using raddles for the first three weeks and changing color weekly.
All ewes appear to have been mated in the first 17 days and the number of repeats appears to be low in the early days of the second cycle.
A red raddle color is used in rams from three weeks until the rams are removed after 35 days of mating.
The other important task during the mating season is to close the paddocks, starting with those that will be grazed first in the spring. Temporary electric fences are used to quickly graze smaller blocks down to 3.5 to 4.0 cm, which avoids forcing the ewes to graze low covers for an extended period of time.
The physical condition of the ewes is assessed after mating, with thin sheep immediately housed and placed on good quality silage to prevent further loss of BCS.
As soon as the last paddock has been grazed, probably in early to mid-December, the remaining ewes will overwinter.
Hill herd update
The hill sheep were in very good condition when they went to the ram last year, with an average BCS of 3.0 and none below 2.5.
Paul feels the Hill Sheep could be slightly behind last year given the extremely wet weather in October-November.
The ewes have come down from the hill to the low ground over the past few weeks to exercise before mating.
The Hill ewes are paired with Scottish Blackface rams in the first cycle, while Suffolk rams then cover the repeats.
The number of mountain sheep has increased through a combination of having home-bred replacement animals and a small number purchased from a known source.
The goal is to produce a good selection of suitable female substitutes to further expand the number of ski jumps.
Eventually, as herd numbers stabilize, there will be more opportunities to breed crossbred replacements for the lowland herd.
hectares to plan
Paul prepares a farm plan to join ACRES. The focus will be primarily on Hill Farm, which comprises large tracts of common and natural land.
Paul sees this as a very important program, not only from an environmental point of view, but also for the economic sustainability of his family business.
Damian Costello and Patrick Browne are Teagasc consultants
https://www.independent.ie/business/farming/sheep/advice/why-it-pays-to-boost-thinner-ewes-body-condition-score-before-mating-42162583.html Why it pays to improve the body condition score of thinner ewes before mating