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Switching From Sucklers To Organic Sheep Farming

‘The transition was very smooth’

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George Best hasn’t looked back since he switched from sucklers to organic sheep farming, reportsLouise Hogan

IT IS over a decade since George and Myra Best took the plunge from sucklers to organic sheep farming.

It was a business decision that enticed the Co Leitrim farmers to change to the system they viewed as a lower cost and more profitable enterprise.

“We’re in organic farming since ‘03 and we’ve 380 ewes on farm. The transition worked well,it worked very smoothly. We were suckler farming previous to that and we did the changeover as we thought it was more profitable.

“Suckler farming was a more intense system,” George explained on the couple’s 150ac farm on the shores of the popular fishing spot, Garadice Lake, on the outskirts of Ballinamore, Co Leitrim.

“The sheep farming is less intensive, it is a low cost system and inputs are a lot less. There is definitely quite a bit of work when they are lambing but once you get them lambed and out to field it is less work.

IT IS over a decade since George and Myra Best took the plunge from sucklers to organic sheep farming.

It was a business decision that enticed the Co Leitrim farmers to change to the system they viewed as a lower cost and more profitable enterprise.

“We’re in organic farming since ‘03 and we’ve 380 ewes on farm. The transition worked well, it worked very smoothly. We were suckler farming previous to that and we did tchangeover as we thought it was more profitable.

“Suckler farming was a more intense system,” George explained on the couple’s 150ac farm on the shores of the popular fishing spot, Garadice Lake, on the outskirts of Ballinamore, Co Leitrim.
“The sheep farming is less intensive, it is a low cost system and inputs are a lot less. There is definitely quite a bit of work when they are lambing but once you get them lambed and out to field it is less work.

“I like the idea of organics— producing things naturally.”

The farm is now part of the organic farming scheme which has an increased payment of €220/ha in conversion and €170 fully converted.

George says there is a little additional work with topping to control weeds and a little more paperwork to comply with the organic regulations. Yet the pair have reseeded paddocks and are using clover to try and maximise their grass.

They are also experimenting with Suffolk and Hampshire rams to get lambs to reach finishing weights earlier. Soil fertility is also key on the farm and they import cattle and dairy sludge, allowed under organic standards, to maintain P and K levels on the farm.

They are now on the countdown to lambing with the first of the Belclare x Texel ewes due on March 5 and lambing expected to last 35 days, with around 1.85 lambs expected per ewe. There is an automatic feeding in the two sheds of sheep pens, with meal starting around seven weeks before lambing increasing from .3kg to 1kg.

George explained they’ll be out to the fields within one to two days of lambing. The farm is well laid out and they invested in a TAMS fencing grant to create an 18 paddock system to try and get the most out of the grass growth and deliver optimum fattening. There is also anadvantage to using the rotation 18 paddock system as it reduces the worm burden.

They found they need to be more pro-active rather than reactive when ‘The transition was very smooth’it comes to animal health.

They take dung samples regularly to indicate if there are any problems, and follow a health plan set out by their vet.

“Fluke is our biggest problem. In a lot of land all over Ireland it is a problem,” he said.

“I like the sheep as with the wet seasons they cause no damage to the ground.

Processor

“We sell most of our ewe lambs to other organic farmers. This way we can get a good sale for our ewe lambs organically and the ram lambs we try and sell to the factory,” he said, addingthey were involved with the Sheep Technology Adoption Programme (STAP) through Leitrim Organic Farmers Co-op headed by John Brennan . “We keep around 20pc as replacements.”

It hasn’t all been plain sailing as George reveals there are problems at times in accessing a processor for the organic lamb with the ICM in Camolin, Co Wexford currently the only factory processing it. Last year, the farmers found they couldn’t sell the lamb organically and it went into the conventional system. They feel more needs to be done by Bord Bia and the processors to find additional markets as the flock expands.

“Every year I sold organic lambs but last year I couldn’t do it,” he said, adding the factory wasn’t accepting the lambs due to having only a market for 100 to 150 lambs per week.
“The market is very difficult to find and there isn’t a large enough number of organic lambs being slaughtered in the country. I sold them back into the conventional, which is what I didn’t want to do or like to do but I had to do it.”

Simply The Best: The Mobile Sheep Handling Unit For All Seasons

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AS SHEEP numbers and the workload grew on the farm, the pair set out seven years ago to find a sheep handling unit.

It was their travels across Ireland and then England that led onto another enterprise that takes up much of their time — a compact mobile handling unit called Shepherdsmate.

“We looked around Ireland and we couldn’t find anything to suit all our needs,” explained George, who has an electronic and mechanics background through the firm he set up more than 25 years, GH Best Ltd. The company installs computerised ventilation and feeding systems on pig farms throughout Ireland and the UK.

“So we looked to the English market and we discovered a sheep handling unit there. We bought a unit off this company and put it in the yard as a fixed unit.

“Then in 2012 we bought the English company and started manufacturing it ourselves and converted it to make it mobile and named it Shepherdsmate.”

George said they’ve sold a lot of Shepherds mate units over the past year throughout Ireland, Northern Ireland and the UK market is also developing. “Our customers vary from very progressive sheep farmers to part-time farmers who may not have much help and also a bad back and want to make things easier.

Recently, he said that grants available under the TAMS scheme had helped drive sales.“Our market is really going to be the English market and we’ll be expanding there,” said George.

He said their mobile handling unit does all the chores that a farmer wants with the one unit — with a race, three way drafting gate, 16ft diameter forcing pen with a swing and slide gate, footbath with an anti-splash sponge, rollover system and digital weighing. “So our machine has everything,” he said, adding it was light and could be easily pulled along behind a vehicle.

“Our weighing system is bluetooth and it is compatible with TGM and other software flock management systems and handheld readers,” he said, with future developments such as ‘auto drafting’ by weight for the electronically-tagged sheep also in progress.

“We have some farmers whose land is very separated and set out in different farms and it is easy as it is mobile they can move all the equipment. It is a specialised unit which would be able to carry all the penning ,” he said, adding it was 8ft long plus the drawbar when it is packed up for movement.

“With the rollover unit the sheep are standing at hand height so it is a lot easier on your back.

The feature about the rollover is you can put any size of sheep in it from 25 kilos up to 100 plus.”

 

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Roscommon sheep farmer Con McGarry decided to purchase a sheep handling unit to help reduce his work load.

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Less help on the farm and a busy workload sparked Con McGarry, a sheep and suckler farmer from Co Roscommon, to invest in a sheep handling unit to help reduce his workload.

Con keeps 200 Suffolk cross sheep, a mixture of breeding ewes and dry hoggets, that he purchases as ewe lambs, along with 30 suckler cows.

The springtime workload is heavy for this one-man operation.

“I had two outfarms with no permanent handling facilities on them and my sons were working away from home, so I looked into buying a mobile sheep handling unit to make life easier,” explains Con.

He had never previously owned a specialised handling facility, but because he is involved in sheepdog trial competitions, he had used different types of handling units and realised they had benefits.

Con decided to buy a mobile unit this year to enable transportation from one farm to the other and he purchased a Shepherdsmate sheep handling system.


Pic 1

The entire unit that Con bought includes 22 regular, galvanised 8ft factory-welded sheep hurdles that are used to make up a funnel to entice sheep into the unit, and a number of pens for drafted sheep. There is a forcing pen with a swing and slide gate, a race, the main handling unit, a three-way one-lever-operated drafting gate and a footbath with exit gate operated by the controller.

The whole unit is attached to a chassis for ease of transportation. With the help of his dog, Tara, Con drives the sheep into the first large pen. They are then easily funnelled into the forcing pen.

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Con says the forcing pen works well because it is sheeted with a polypropylene plastic covering, which limits the ewe’s view of what’s ahead, enticing her to run up the race. He believes that the circular shape also helps to entice the ewe to move. A sliding gate can be moved inwards as the group size gets smaller to keep the flock moving up the race.

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Once a sheep enters the race, she cannot back out because there are gravity controlled non-return gates to block her.

With the aid of a foot-pedal entrance gate, Con can control when a sheep enters the main handling point.

Once on the race, the sheep has full view ahead, enticing her to run into the unit when the entrance gate is open.

The handling unit itself is height adjustable. The main handling point has a weighing system connected to a digital clock (Bluetooth compatible). There is a built-in turn-over crate that Con uses to check sheep’s feet and udders, as well as dose.

The one-hand-operated three-way drafting gate allows Con to divert sheep into different pens.

He uses this if he is drafting lambs for slaughter or separating cull ewes from the main flock.

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With the three-way sorting gate, sheep can be directed straight, left or right on to the 2.5-metre footbath. Con uses one footbath where three sheep can fit at once. With the aid of a rope, he can open the exit gate from his position at the handling unit and release the sheep as he sees fit.

Con’s comments

With any major sheep job, I can save from three hours to half a day because I’m now using a handling unit. It takes me 10 minutes to set up and it’s light and balanced on the road. I would recommend anyone with a number of sheep to consider buying a handling unit to reduce their workload. A handling unit allows me to carry out most of the heavy work with sheep on my own. I use the sheep gates at lambing time for individual pens.

 

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