NORTHERN Ireland’s College of Agriculture Food and Rural Enterprise (CAFRE) focuses on demonstrating efficient farming practices which integrate livestock production that will meet market requirements with enhanced environmental management, educating and training for CAFRE students and the wider farming community by disseminating knowledge and technology transfer, and assisting government and stakeholders in the development and implementation of evidence-based policies.

CAFRE’s extensive estate includes a dairy centre which is home to 190 cows with an average yield of 9000 litres, the hill farm centre which extends to 960 hectares with 1100 ewes and a 100-cow suckler herd. As well as this, the 140ha beef and sheep centre is home to 75 suckler cows and a March-lambing flock of 210 ewes. Store lambs and calves from both the hill farm enterprise and the dairy enterprise are also finished there.

The hill farm centre at Glenwherry, near Ballymena, in County Antrim, is predominantly unimproved grassland and heather moorland between 180-360m above sea level. Both cattle and sheep genetics are chosen carefully to ensure they are suitable for the range of habitats without causing environmental damage.

Sheep at the hill farm centre are managed in two different flocks with different breeding goals and levels of output utilising a range of habitats. The hill flock consists of 600 Scottish Blackface and Blackface cross Swaledale ewes, while the upland flock consists of 500 Texel cross ewes.

The driving force behind ewe efficiency at the Greenmount hill farm centre is the information collected and utilised for breeding decisions. Scottish Blackface ewes are Signet recorded giving all maternal information such as birth weight, lambing ease, litter size, along with lamb growth at eight and 20 weeks which is used to select the best animals for breeding. This selection process continues at every stage, with all ewes and their progeny individually identified, and performance recorded. 

All females retained for breeding are selected using a number of factors:

  • Maternal ability, producing ewes which lamb unassisted, with good mothering instincts, a vital role for increasing live lamb numbers and reducing labour input.
  • Good growth rates – which is an indication of ewe milking ability and lamb growth potential – are vital for maximising growth from grass and reducing the need for supplemented feeding. Replacement lambs must meet target daily live weight gains.
  • Litter size, as lamb numbers is one of the biggest factors affecting profitability. For example, the replacements for the lowland flock are always selected from twin ewe lambs. However, it is also important to match prolifically to the capability of the system.

The ability to collect all the mentioned data as efficiently as possible is through the use of EID technology, automated facilities and the appropriate farm data programme. This enables information to be collected alongside routine handling procedures without additional labour.

As all progeny from both the suckler herd and sheep flocks are either used as replacements or taken through to finish, a huge databank of information is available to assist with CAFRE’s breeding and management decisions and for dissemination to industry and students.

The recent investment in new sheep housing facilities makes handling much easier and is a further aid to data collection and use. Prior to the new development, 750 ewes were housed across three sites with facilities dating back to the 1970s. These ewes are now housed in one building which greatly simplifies logistics. The remaining 350 ewes are still lambed outdoors.

This new improved shed is a portal frame structure, measuring 72m by 26m with a footprint of 1870m2, accommodating 750 ewes pre-lambing, and can include 84 individual mothering pens. Holding and handling facilities for the entire 1100 ewe flock are also included. The house has 17 pens of which 15 are 6m x 8m and hold 44 ewes, while a further two pens are 6m x 6m and hold 33 ewes. This allows a floor space of 1.1m2 per ewe based on an average ewe size of 55kg. 

Feed space per ewe is 18cm when feeding a TMR but this can be extended to 36cm if manual feeding is used. Each pen has an animal-operated drinker which provides fresh water on demand. All the drinkers in the house are connected in a loop system which monitors the water temperature, with a water heating unit used to safeguard against freezing.
Feed rails are adjustable to ensure suitability for all sizes of stock and to allow restricted feeding if required. They can also be closed off completely to allow pens to be used as holding pens as part of the handling system when large batches need to be handled such as at shearing. Instead of concrete, plastic slats are fitting which have a knobbed surface for reduced slip and improved foot stability.

There are 56 permanent lambing pens with water supplied through a 150mm pipe regulated by a ball valve at one end. A further 28 temporary pens which are straw bedded for lambing are situated in the handling area during lambing. An external passage 1m wide along the back of the sheep pens enhances observation and enables movement of ewes and lambs around the house with minimal assistance.

Handling facilities are designed to make use of the sheep’s natural behaviour where possible and incorporates a long narrow collecting pen, circular forcing pen, long handling race returning ewes in the direction they entered and solid sheeted sides with stock board. The race includes an animal handling unit which will reduce stress for both the animal and the operator. The latest EID technology and software is used to capture information and aid management, including automated drafting and weighing equipment and precision drenching. A further feature is a self-emptying, custom-made concrete footbath with the capacity to hold 40-50 ewes.

The building is naturally ventilated via a combination of space boarding and Yorkshire cladding, with a protected open ridge running the full length of the building. Lighting is provided through low energy LED lights, with a higher percentage over the lambing pens to facilitate closer observation. Wireless, high-resolution cameras are also included to aid stock management.