Joe Milligan

3rd April 2017

Such was the strong impression that Joe made on the selection panel, they named him as the next Farming Minister and the next Chancellor! His passion for the industry and his grasp on business finances were clear to see, yet Joe still has a long list of things he wants to achieve and repeatedly said during his interview, ‘it’s not bad but it can still be improved’. 

Joe works closely with his father on the sheep and beef farm at Castlewellan, 25 miles south of Belfast, and wants to ensure the business can comfortably support the two of them. With a particular interest in the ewes, he aims to improve prolificacy, milkiness and overall health in order to sell more lambs more quickly. 

Top fact: Joe’s appetite for information is insatiable. He is part-way through a foundation degree in agriculture with plans to upgrade to an honours degree. He and his father are also involved in the NI Sheep Business Development Group, NI Suckler Beef Programme and the Ulster Grassland Society.


All sheep on the farm have been housed since the middle of January on a mixture of temporary wire mesh and straw bedding, with the ewes due to start lambing on 3rd April. Our ewes and ewe-lambs have been scanned, and while I would have liked the results to be slightly higher, they are still good considering a breeding period of just over five weeks. They were on a silage only diet until the last week of February before nuts were introduced. By housing all stock on the farm, it allows swards a chance to rest and we’ve fertiliser is in the yard waiting on the current weather conditions to improve.

The farm also has a suckler herd, mainly calving in the spring from 28th March. Workload levels will be sure to significantly increase from current levels! We have just vaccinated and bolused in-calf cows, which I have found to be doing the job well, and we’re also having an extension put onto the main cattle shed at the moment. This concrete floor area will act as extra communal pens for cows and calves or ewes with lambs if weather conditions don’t allow for immediate turn out. 

After meeting the NSA Next Generation Ambassador group for the first session in mid-February, one noticeable thing was the big variation in backgrounds we’ve all come from. But it is great to be in a group with 11 other like-minded individuals who have so much passion and enthusiasm to improve their own flocks and move the sheep industry forward. 


Ewes and ewe lambs have just received their annual booster against clostridial diseases. The lambs will be covered by antibodies from ewes colostrum which should cover them until they’re around four weeks of age, at which point they will receive their own vaccine at this point.

Mineral tests were done on a handful of ewes at the end of January so as a result of that we also gave and a mineral drench to boost trace element levels before lambing. While the sample may not have been completely representative of the flock, it still gave an indication. Results came back as around normal for most of the trace elements and no major change in current strategies is planned and more samples will be taken when ewes are at grass to see if there is a difference.

Whilst completing the flock health plan, the topic of dosing ewes at lambing came up. We’ve decided to vaccinate all ewes once lambed against worm persistency, which will hopefully lead to reduced or minimal contamination of worms on the pasture and should lead to increased growth rates in lambs compared with last year. A recent faecel egg count test done for fluke and worms showed fairly low levels s in both the ewes and ewe lambs, but as this was done about eight weeks pre-lambing this figure will likely increase significantly in the week or so leading up to lambing when immune systems become more suppressed.

With ground conditions improving and adequate grass supplies on one block of land, some light store heifers will hopefully be turned out this week. As they are some of the lightest stock on the farm, poaching should be kept a minimum. We’ve found being flexible when turning stock out early is vital to help ease the pressure on the current housing situation which is currently at capacity. With cows due to start calving in the next two weeks, calving pens need power-hosed and disinfecting.

The lambing shed has a batch of ewes in it which will have to move to allow for it to power-hosed and disinfected. Lambing pens will hopefully be set up in advance of the first few ewes lambing, unlike last year when things were running behind and some ewes had lambed before this was done. All being well, ewes will only be in the pens a matter of hours before being turned out to the fields. 


Lambing started on 2nd of April and over 85% lambed in 17 days. Numbers have risen slightly from scanning, with extra triplets born and low mortality rates. Ewes have plenty of milk and lambs are up looking to suckle soon after birth. Ewes and lambs are mostly being turned out within 24 hours, with ewe lambs and lambs kept in an extra few hours allowing them more time to bond. With the rams taken out after five weeks, there shouldn’t be any stragglers like other years.

Potential replacement ewe lambs are marked at birth, from ewes with plenty of milk and good mothering ability. They are either a twin or a triplet, no singles have been kept for a few years now and lambing percentages have increased as a result. The majority of these are Suffolk crosses with few a Texels, at a 15-20% replacement rate. This year we made the decision to inject ewes and ewe lambs at lambing against worm burden. We’re also planning to carry out regular faecel egg counts on this years’ lambs which will be treated based on the results. Paddock and rotational grazing systems are also in place and should help to minimize worm burdens.

There is no shortage of grass on the farm at the minute and with the first round of fertiliser spread, some fields are being closed up for silage a lot earlier than normal. If grass quality is not controlled during April and early May, performance suffers for the rest of the year as we found out with one or two paddocks last year.

On the cattle side of things two heifers calved a few weeks before their time but the main batch started on the 28th of March and after three weeks 75% have calved. All should be calved within 5-6 weeks. Cows are being turned out to grass straight after calving meaning a reduced workload and a cleaner environment for the calf. This year all store cattle were turned out by the 5th of April. As they will be calving down at two years of age performance from grass this summer will be key to them being retained in the herd next year. 


Things are going well here with grass growing and stock thriving. The last of the ewes have lambed, leaving a lambing period of exactly five weeks. Previous years have seen it spread out for eight to ten weeks, between one thing and another, but I’ve found management far easier this year so one set period will be established from now on.

All lambs were vaccinated for against clostridial diseases, orf and tailed this week. It was a great opportunity to see how lambs were doing and I am very pleased with their performance to date. If current grass supplies keep up, hopefully a lot of lambs will be ready for slaughter around the 15 - 18-week stage.

The ewes are now being grazed in three batches, two at home and one batch at the other farm where a couple of smaller fields suit sheep rather than cattle. Although bigger batches make grassland management a lot simpler, handling facilities are not big enough to hold them in one batch. This is something we will hopefully address over the coming months.

Although breeding seems a long way off, we are starting to think of rams to purchase. Although we may not change breeds, selecting rams on their EBV’s is something which will be at the forefront of our decisions. Having seen how genetic progress has improved the profitability of other flocks, it is an area we see to keep improving ours.

The cows have nearly all calved with just three left after seven weeks, exactly the same as last year which I can’t complain about. With three out of four bulls all having problems during the first four weeks of breeding last year, things could have been a lot worse.

With Balmoral Show now passed, it’s hard to believe how time has passed. Silage is progressing on nicely and with high growth rates we are closing off more paddocks for bales. This high-quality fodder is vital for feeding ewes around lambing time and fattening cattle prior to slaughter.


These past few months have been great on the farm with stock and grass performing very well. Ewes have been sheared and seem to be in better condition than other years and the lambs have all received their first dose and a booster for clostridial diseases. A mid-May dung sample led us to dose all lambs for worms and coccidiosis at the start of June. A few of the strongest lambs are now coming fit for slaughter which is always a nice stage to get to but it will be a while before any real numbers will be ready to go. Cutting the average age at slaughter by just a few days or a week each year will be a great improvement and is an area we are working on.

The first cut of silage was mowed in ideal conditions and wilted for around 36 hours before ensiling in the third week in May. This was around 3-4 weeks earlier than last year and is as early as I can remember on this farm. A further 30 acres of bales were taken in the second week of June in ideal conditions again and should provide some top quality feed for our autumn calving cows. We should by now have enough good quality silage to feed store and fattening cattle, along with the ewes over the winter. This leaves the second cut and any surplus bales from now on to feed the rest of the stock.

The second session NSA Next Generation Ambassador session was held lately, covering grassland and benchmarking which I was really looking forward to. It was different from what I expected but opened my eyes to what is achievable with the right stock for the right system - there is no perfect breed or no perfect way to operate. The system has to suit your farm and what you want to get from it. I have noticed more moving towards New Zealand breeds for their ease of management and higher growth rates off grass. It is something we are looking at, but will have to weigh up the pros and cons for our system first. 


It’s hard to believe we are half way through the year already. We weaned all the lambs around the 25th and they are averaging around three to four kilos heavier than last year. The ewes were all sorted through at weaning too, where we pull out ewes identified at lambing for culling along with others that have had problems since.

We have just purchased another Meatlinc ram which we hope will bring the vigour and low mortality rates as previous rams have. We picked the new ram completely based on figures and was almost top of pile for eight-week weight and while there were higher index rams to choose from, weight gain is the ultimate goal on this farm.

FEC counts done this year have shown minimal amount of eggs present each time which shows that our dosing strategy has worked. The level of coccidiosis in the samples is one thing that has stood out, although there are no visible signs it is affecting thrift so we will have to look closer at this issue next year.

Grass growth has been fairly good so far this year and ground conditions have been near perfect. But this past few weeks’ rain is starting to take its toll on ground conditions with cows having to be moved on quicker than normal and utilisation has dropped dramatically. Second cut silage has now been harvested - we got lucky with two dry days in a row to get it in. Quality is good, even if dry matter isn’t, so should be good enough to feed dry cows and store cattle later in the winter.


Lambs are all thriving well since weaning. They are grazing mostly grass, alongside a small amount of meal we recently introduced. The plan had been to finish them all of grass, but with grass dry matter through the floor we felt there was little alternative if we didn’t want a lot of lambs left in October and November. We have sold a few finished lambs and it’s nice to get the first few away and hopefully there will be a lot more to follow in the coming weeks.

Lambs are now getting a mineral dench every few weeks as we have found low levels of trace elements in the cattle and in a few sampled ewes taken earlier in the year. The replacement ewe lambs have been separated out and are grazing good swards on an out farm that doesn’t get heavily grazed with sheep. They were sheared before they went up, and while I think they do better and are bigger than years where they are weren’t sheared it is a topic still up for debate.

Cows are moving round their rotation very fast and keeping grass in front of them is a problem, we decided to graze a field almost ready to cut for bales just to stretch things out a bit with the weather taking a turn for the worse recently.

An improvement in the weather is badly needed to cut the rest of the bales gathered up and to keep the cows at grass for another few weeks. Autumn calving cows have just started in the first week of the month and we have just purchased our first batch of dairy bred calves. This is about six to eight weeks earlier than other years and we hope they should all be finished off grass by June or July in two years’ time if not out of the house in 19-20 months.