To make the best of horned hoggets on an indoor finishing system, plenty of space and good ventilation are as important as the right diet, says Co Durham hill farmer Fred Raine.
His hill sheep enterprise relies solely on pure-bred Swaledales – only a handful are crossed – meaning Swaledale wethers are the main source of prime sheep income produced on a farm where four-fifths of grazing is heather.
“It’s an important source of income for us, so we make every effort to get the best out of it.
“The management of these wethers as far back as mid-summer has a bearing on how they perform during winter when we’re finishing them,” says Mr Raine, who farms with sons Nicholas and Neville.
Their 750ha (1800 acres) at Stanhope Gate, Middleton in Teesdale runs to 1900ft. From an April-May lambing – achieving 160% – lambs are weaned in mid-August.
At weaning wether lambs are turned on to pastures close to the farm, but hay aftermaths are avoided.
“How we graze them immediately after weaning is important.
You can’t take wether lambs off ewes following a summer on a heather moor and turn them on to land that’s been fertilised for a hay crop. It’s just too good for them and they can take a serious check,” he says.
“Ideally, if you could top aftermaths with cattle and then let them freshen again that would do, because these lambs can’t cope with good grass.”
The pastures provide enough for about 400 wether lambs until the third week in October, when they are housed, usually in three batches to stagger the mid-winter marketing period.
“We usually bring in smaller lambs first because any scouring problems are mainly among the smaller lambs.
Once inside we put them straight on to hay, but don’t introduce any feed for about 10 days.
Hay gets them taking water.
“Some finishers say Herdwick lambs will only drink running water, but on a hay-only diet our Swaledales quickly take to the drinkers, although it is spring water.
After 10 days we introduce a 14% lamb finisher pellet at the rate of three bags for each pen of 70 lambs.”
The flock is well known for producing big-framed wethers weighing about 28kg at housing.
The first are drawn within four to five weeks and, while Mr Raine says he likes his Swaledales to be good to touch in terms of finish, weight is not the main marketing criterion.
“When they feel good on their back they need to be going.
We’ve had these wethers up to 45kg and made up to £40 and we’ve had some at 42kg at £41.”
Lambs are finished on straw in stone-floored pens in a wooden sheep house built more than 20 years ago.
The building houses ewes in late winter, so it is essential it is emptied in good time.
“Each pen gives 70 lambs 800sq ft. They do better with plenty of room and plenty of fresh air.
One side of the building is Yorkshire-boarded to within one foot of the eaves and there are ventilation flaps that we open as necessary,” says Mr Raine.
This hasn’t been an easy year for marketing hill lambs and it wasn’t until prices showed some improvement before Christmas that the Raines made their first draw.
“You can tick these wethers over for so long, but you can’t hold them once they’re ready.
They just stop eating and once they slip you can’t get them back.”