Emma Tobin and Anna Dunne are responsible for the sheep flock at Kildalton College, alongside stockman Billy Fraher.
Approximately 130 ewes lamb down each year, consisting of mature ewes and 40 replacement ewe lambs. The mature ewe flock is sponged to lamb down in February to allow students to be actively involved in the lambing season at the college before going on placement.
“Students are actively involved in all the preparation. They insert and remove the sponges and inject sheep with PMSG, with many students not having synchronised ewes in the past,” explained Anna. To make best use of the farm’s six stock rams, 100 ewes were sponged in autumn 2021.
After 12 days, sponges were removed from 50 of the ewes, with the other 50 removed at day 14. This way, only 50 ewes are put to the rams to start, then removed after 24 hours and rested for a day before joining the final 50 ewes.
Lambs are weaned at 12 weeks of age. During our visit, the replacement ewe lambs set to lamb in 2023 were grazing in front of the college lawns, with the college flock now recording data with Sheep Ireland.
Regarding data collection, Anna stated: “We are new to data recording with the flock, but we can see how it will be a massive benefit to us in the future, especially on the genotyping of stock rams. It’s one of the skills we hope to see students bringing back to their home farms going forward.”
The ewe lambs begin to lamb from the first week in March, with distance education and part-time students, who make up a large cohort of the student body, actively involved in the lambing period.
The college also has a strong affiliation with Waterford IT and its Level 7 and Level 8 agricultural students, with students requiring experience prior to placement aiding in the lambing at Kildalton.
“Although our full-time sheep student numbers are small compared to the dairy side, the ewe flock is hugely important, both for these students and for the sheep skills of our distance and part-time students.
“We could easily have sheep skills being taught twice a week throughout the year,” explained Emma.
Performance and data recording
Regarding performance, the sheep flock is highly stocked at 2.6 lu/ha. As a result, lambs are creep-fed from an early age to reduce days to slaughter.
“It’s not something we would be particularly advocating to students, but in order to have enough ewes to teach the skills required, we need to run at this higher stocking rate.
“We combine the creep-feeding with excellent grassland management in order utilise grass as best as possible. The sheep run alongside the suckler herd on a farmlet of 57ha, with mixed grazing practiced throughout the year,” said Emma.
Over 12t/ha of grass was grown on the drystock platform, with students shown how to measure and record grass growth through the PastureBase Ireland app. The block is split into a total of 30 paddocks catering for the sucklers and sheep, as well as the dairy-beef enterprise.
Another skill that students gain during the drystock courses in Kildalton is carrying out faecal egg counts. Worming is carried out based on the results, as well as a physical assessment of the lambs, something that Emma and Anna are looking to ingrain in students, who are more familiar with routine dosing to try to prevent anthelminthic resistance developing on farms.
With the volume of good-quality replacements we have coming on-stream annually, we can afford to cull lesser-quality ewes freely
Faecal egg testing is also conducted after dosing to ensure the products used are working, with this year’s results showing high efficacy of doses being used.
Lambs are also mineral drenched with cobalt every two weeks. No other minerals bar cobalt are used on the sheep flock, including ewes pre-tupping, with no adverse effects. The 2022 scanning rate was a respectable 2.1 lambs/ewe on the mature flock.
The total 2022 weaning rate was 1.81 lambs/ewe joined on the mature ewe flock. The ewe lambs scanned at 1.4 lambs/ewe, with a weaning rate of 1.2 lambs/ewe joined. The ewe flock is a mixture of Suffolk and Belclare-cross ewes, with Suffolk rams being used on Belclare ewes and vice versa. A Charollais ram is used on the ewe lambs for ease of lambing.
The replacement rate for the flock is high, with Anna citing that the college culls hard in order to maintain a high performance in the college’s flock.
“It’s something we would encourage both students and farmers [to do]. With the volume of good-quality replacements we have coming on-stream annually, we can afford to cull lesser-quality ewes freely.
“Often there is a lack of replacements coming on farms, leading to farmers being unable to selectively cull ewes,” said Emma.
Student Michelle McDonald is from a part-time drystock farm in Co Wicklow. As Michelle grew older and garnered more responsibility on the farm, her interest in agriculture led her to pursue a formal agricultural education.
“I had heard through word of mouth that Kildalton had a very practical hands-on approach to learning, which is something I wanted to build on. I was nervous coming down to the course, being the only girl. But credit to the teachers, they were extremely helpful and really helped to build my confidence.”
Michelle also noted the ability to transfer the knowledge learned at Kildalton to her own farm at home, particularly grassland management skills regarding grass measuring and installing paddocks.
Originally starting out her education in the Level 5 sheep course, Michelle then progressed on to the Level 6 drystock course, with further ambitions to transfer to the Waterford IT Level 7 degree in agriculture. Between 20 and 30 students progress on from the Level 6 course in Kildalton to further education.
“Placement was probably the most enjoyable part of the course. I completed lambing with Brian Nicholson on his 1,000 ewe Kilkenny-based flock. It was great to see how he manages his farm on a larger scale than I would have been used to at home.” Kildalton has a select list of host farmers that students are sent to each year as part of this placement, with criteria in place for farmers to be classed as a host farm.
Michelle is keen to encourage more girls coming out of secondary school to pursue agricultural courses.
“Nobody is going to laugh at you, nobody is going to make fun of you if you’re unsure of something. Students and teachers are extremely helpful and it’s a great environment to learn in. Whether it be through placement, the lectures or the discussion groups you attend, you’re constantly learning and picking up skills.”