More terminal sires will be turned out with horned ewes on north country hill farms this autumn in an effort to increase income from prime lamb sales. But a Lancashire hill farming partnership is sticking to tradition and believes the Mule wether lamb can hold its own against any other breed in its ability to gain weight during the three weeks before slaughter.

In a summer and early autumn season that has been – and continues to be – one of the most challenging for many lamb finishers, Mule wether lambs produced by Lancashire hill farmers Jim Walker and son-on-law Richard Alpe are rated as some of the best prime lambs being handled by major meat wholesalers Dunbia, Preston.

“There’s nothing to beat a good Mule wether for weight gain,” says Mr Walker of Saddle End Farm, Chipping, Preston. “When you push the button, the Mule wether can match anything.”

Situated in the Trough of Bowland with land running to 1200ft, the farm carries 1100 ewes comprising 800 Swaledale ewes – 250 bred pure, with the rest producing North of England Mules. The farm also carries a Mule ewe flock put to Texels.

But although Swaledale wethers, Texel x Mules and Mule wethers are sold deadweight off the farm, it is the quality of the Mules that proves what these lambs are capable off when their breeding and management takes account of the potential to earn a good return from both gimmers and wethers.

Many years of using Swaledale rams selected for conformation as well as type – and breeding Bluefaced Leicester tups that will ensure the “carcass shape” of the Swaledales is enhanced and not undermined – is the basis of the flock’s consistently good prime lamb returns.

Messrs Walker and Alpe believe deadweight selling produces the best return for their Mule wether lambs, all of which are sold through Dunbia. Each lamb is weighed on the farm before loading for the short journey to Preston.

But that point is the end of almost a year’s management, which starts in the autumn at tupping time. Feed blocks are put out for ewes before tupping and are left out. In-lamb ewes are batched according to scanning results and their body condition and feeding continues after lambing until the first flush of grass, which may not arrive until well into May. Swaledale ewes carrying Mule lambs consistently achieve 170% lambing.

The first Mule wether lambs are drawn in late June/early July, weighing 40kg plus – a marketing season that runs into mid- to late October.

All lambs weighing about 38kg are finished in batches of 30-70 and trough fed for a final finishing period of three to four weeks, aiming for a weight gain of 4kg or more.

The grading sheets make impressive reading, with Mule wethers consistently achieving R conformation grades at 3 and 3H.

“In our experience, when you send Mule wethers a bit short on weight, the sheets will show them as conformation grade O if they are good enough, they’ll achieve R,” says Mr Alpe. “A Mule wether lamb will have no problem getting the weight and reaching 42-45kg when the management is right.” Mule wethers have paid well this season, with 21kg lambs making up to £2.80/kg.

Chris Staines, Dunbia’s livestock procurement officer, based at Preston, says the partnership’s lambs have been consistently good despite the difficult season for finishing.

“It’s been a really challenging season for everyone, but spending time handling and drawing lambs is the key to producing the right type of carcass week after week – and that’s how Jim Walker and Richard Alpe achieve such consistent quality,” he says.

“If they have a lamb that weighs 40kg and it’s a bit lean, it will be left until it’s better fleshed and sold at 44kg. This season a lot of producers have been selling lambs too lean.

“We’re getting more better-fleshed lambs coming through after a spell of decent weather, but a lot of lambs have had a difficult season and our advice to producers is to keep them going forward. Spending £5 on feed will give a £10 return in the current market, provided lambs are individually and regularly handled and marketed carefully.”