Sheep meat and milk production is an important industry in Europe, especially in countries like Ireland, France, Italy, Romania, Spain and the UK. In fact, with 85 million sheep on 830 000 farms in the EU, plus an additional 33 million sheep in Turkey, Europe’s flock is bigger than Australia and New Zealand’s combined.
Yet even with this large number of sheep, Europe is only 85 % self-sufficient in sheep meat. As a result, the EU is the world’s second largest importer of sheep meat.
Behind this gap in self-sufficiency is a declining sheep industry. Since 2000, the number of sheep producers in the EU has declined by 50 %, and during the past 10 years sheep productivity has decreased by up to 40 % (depending on the country and the farming system).
“Different factors can explain this decline, but the main one is low sheep productivity, or the number of lambs reared per ewe joined on the farm,” says Jean-Marc Gautier, Chief of Service at France’s Institut de l’Elevage.
However, despite this negative trend, Gautier sees significant opportunities for improving sheep productivity. “By improving reproduction success and lamb survivability, we can improve farm profitability and increase the self-sufficiency of sheep meat in Europe,” he says.
Helping sheep farmers leverage these opportunities is the EU-funded SheepNet project, a network of the EU’s leading sheep producing countries and Turkey. “Working with scientists and shareholders, the project developed and shared solutions for increasing production without having to export excess sheep meat,” adds Gautier.
Making sheep production more attractive
The project’s main goal was to achieve an increase in ewe productivity of 0.1 lambs reared per ewe joined. This would be the equivalent of 64 000 tonnes of sheep meat, thus resulting in a net self-sufficiency of 92 %. Furthermore, farmers would receive an approximately EUR 10 increase for each additional 0.1 lamb sold per ewe joined.
“We are confident that these changes will make sheep production more attractive for both the current and next generations of producers,” explains Gautier.
To achieve this, the project worked directly with farmers, scientists, and other stakeholders. Together, they identified solutions and best practices for improving ewe productivity and flock profitability.
“These solutions focused on everything from nutrition management during late pregnancy to colostrum management, causes of lamb mortality and abortion, artificial rearing, ewe body condition score, and sheep shed management,” says Gautier. “We also created a lambing inventory and method for better ram management.”In total, the project produced 42 solutions, 88 tips and tricks, and 22 factsheets. All of these deliverables are available via the SheepNet community platform in six languages. Each includes comprehensive information on expected costs and benefits, prerequisites, references, and feedback from actual farmers.
Having a big impact
With these solutions in hand, researchers next turned towards dissemination. “SheepNet is all about practice-driven innovation and practical knowledge sharing,” remarks Gautier. “Through our network, we promoted the implementation and dissemination of innovative technologies and practices for improving sheep productivity.”
Dissemination activities included the organisation of five workshops per partner country (35 in total), plus five transnational workshops and a final summary seminar. Other activities included the production of 19 press releases, 143 articles, 120 videos, and 33 infographics – not to mention the use of various social media platforms.
According to Gautier, SheepNet’s solutions are already having a big impact. “We’ve received significant feedback from farmers telling us how they are using our network and solutions to improve flock productivity, labour efficiency, and farm profitability,” concludes Gautier.
Based on the project’s success, researchers launched EuroSheep, a spin-off Horizon 2020 project focused on sheep health and nutrition. They are currently working on a new precision livestock farming initiative.