Cheviot Mules do the business for Ian Smith at West Bolton

August 4, 2020

Higher performing mothers and fewer days on farm for the lambs is the way forward for Northumberland sheep producer, Ian Smith, who relies on a flock of Cheviot Mules to do the job for him at West Bolton, Alnwick.

“The Mule is everything to us. She works well in our system due to her mothering ability, ease of lambing and high lambing percentages.

“Cheviot Mules help us produce strong lamb prices at the end of the day, which is what it is all about,” said Ian, who buys 150 Cheviot Mule ewe lambs every year at Longtown, at an average of £100-plus per head.

Until recently, all Cheviot Mules were put to Texel shearling rams. However, the Smiths have recently been buying Texel ram lambs to use with the intention of turning them over the following year as shearlings.

“The majority of the ewes were tupped by ram lambs this year, which worked well and I could see there being potential to make a bit of money from selling them again, rather than buying in shearlings all the time,” said Ian, who used to buy in three or four Texel shearlings each year, generally at Kelso or at local markets.

Commenting on his preferred type of Mule, he said: “I look to breed from good square sheep with nice tight skins that will produce a mature ewe weighing 75kg. I am not obsessed with heads and ears, it is the body and strong conformation that outperforms appearance and makes the money.”

He also runs a 50-ewe flock of traditional Bluefaced Leicesters, with around 18 ewe lambs retained each year for breeding, with the remainder of females culled. All tup lambs are sold as shearlings at Kelso Ram Sales, averaging around £800 per head for about 25 each year. On the flip side, a shearling will be bought in every few years at Kelso, or Builth Wells.

“We look to keep the pure ewe lambs with good conformation, skins and good mouths. We have been recording particularly on mothering ability and performance traits and look to retain ewe lambs from good milky mothers.

“Performance recording is something I always fancied and it is becoming increasingly popular, as a growing number of people are now looking for sheep with figures which always helps when you are selling shearling rams. At the end of the day it is performance that everyone wants,” said Ian.

Lambing takes place inside at the beginning of April when there’s sufficient grass levels to get them out quickly. All lambs are tagged at birth and ringed before they leave the shed.

“There is nothing to stop the Cheviot Mule from lambing outside, but it just suits my system to keep them inside – it saves having to catch the lambs out in an open field!” said Ian, who double tags breeding ewe lambs and puts slaughter tags in the wedders, to simplify the weaning process.

Ewes are fed round bales of silage at the end of January through until lambing, depending on the weather and a month prior to lambing are introduced to ewe rolls fed via a snacker. The Cheviot Mules normally produce scanning percentage of 205-210%, with almost 185% at sale time.

“Ewes are not flushed. Cheviot Mules are just naturally prolific and always produce a good number of lambs. We try and rub as many triplets onto singles as possible, thereafter we just lift them and rear the lambs on their own,” said Ian, adding that orphan lambs not twinned on are fed via an automatic feeder.

“We do leave the odd one running as triplets, but it can just lead to a lot of issues, and doesn’t really work in our system. It’s just not practical in the long run,” said Ian.

Ewe lambs are vaccinated only for abortion, and none of the lambs are wormed to reduce costs of production. Instead, the business relies on a clean grazing system to keep worms at bay, and fly treatments are used when necessary.

“Wedder lambs would do fine off grass, but I want them away as early as I can, so I do push them with creep feeding to finish them quicker. I have other jobs to be getting on with, so I don’t want to be tied to the lambs later in the year,” said Ian, who also runs a large arable unit with help from the rest of the family. 

The first batch of 110 Texel cross lambs achieved prices £10-£15 per head up on the year. The best scaled 45kg, which worked out at having gained 500g a day since birth when sold at just 12 weeks of age, selling for £100.

Most, however, weighed around 40kg, having gained 450g a day, and sold to £95. Wedder lambs are sold either live, through Wooler, Acklington, or deadweight through Woodhead Brothers. Two-thirds of the wedder lambs were away by the middle of July.

All ewe lambs are sold through C and D’s Longtown Auction Market, which last year saw 350-400 Texel crosses balance out at £101, averaging around 47-48kg.

“Our crosses are not a known breeding type, so I am quite happy with the trade we are getting for them, we cannot complain! It is a profitable part of the business that works well for us,” he said.

Buying in Mules and putting them to Texel rams, as well as running their Bluefaced Leicester flock works well for the Smiths, although Ian admitted, there is potential to breed their own Mules.

“If we had enough ground to produce Mules, I would jump at the chance. I have always wanted to do so, but unfortunately we just don’t have enought suitable ground at present,” he said.

Outwith the sheep enterprise, the Smiths also run a 60-cow suckler herd of Beef Shorthorn and Aberdeen-Angus crosses. Store bullocks are also bought in for finishing from Hexham, or privately. In general, 250 are bought annually and fed a home-grown cereal ration inside.

“The bullocks tend to be Simmentals and Charolais, purely because we can get increased weight gain from them,” said Ian, who is looking for the cattle to gain 1.75kg-2kg a day, with each beast being kept roughly for 100 days.

“Up until the last couple of months, the profit on them has been miserable, however the recent lift in deadweight trade has helped slightly. It has not been an easy couple of years for the beef industry, we just have to hope the price keeps rising to get us back on track,” said Ian.

Sadly, however, he believes the industry faces an unstable future due to increasing awareness of greenhouse gas emissions and Brexit, which are likely to have huge implications for the industry.

“I can see huge restrictions coming on the use of artificial fertilisers and other chemicals … but who knows. It is all a guessing game for us farmers!

“Add to that big ongoing debate that has been sitting in the shadows, Brexit! If the deal isn’t good for farming, things will be very tricky.

“Single Farm Payments are on the way out, and only time will tell what the replacement will hold. We just have to stick together and hope,” concluded Ian.

Article written by The Scottish Farmer and all photos taken by Rob Haining of The Scottish Farmer

Previous post:

Next post: