Breaking out of the straightjacket that keeps a tight grip on income is the constant challenge for all hill farmers, but a North Yorkshire flock has proved that mixing Swaledale, Texel and Beltex genetics could hold the key.

Brian Lawson and his son Matthew now have enough experience of a sheep they have named the Texdale – a Texel x Swaledale – that they believe this hardy, cross-bred ewe can unlock valuable new income for hill farms by producing top-notch prime lambs off land normally grazed by pure horned sheep.

Impressive

The Texdale is producing some impressive figures. A bunch of 140 Beltex sired lambs out of Texdale ewes – which were out-wintered on rough ground until January – were housed and fed for just 16 days before being marketed. The first four pens of lambs to be sold averaged 44kg and made £68 apiece.

“Beltex-sired lambs out of Texdale ewes also have a high killing out percentage reaching about 54% and consistently achieve E and U grades,” says Matthew Lawson of Buddle House Farm, Richmond.

The farm carries 1820 Swaledale ewes and 420 Texdale ewes. About 400 Swaledale ewes are crossed each year – split equally between Texel and Bluefaced Leicester tups.

“We put the first Swaledale ewes to the Texel in 1997. Mule prices were down and we wanted to try and produce a type of half-bred sheep that could breed us good quality prime lambs.

“Hill farm incomes will always be restricted by the type of land and the stock it will carry, but we went into this hoping it might be a way of increasing the value of the sheep we produce based on our existing Swaledale flock,” says Mr Lawson.

Initially the Texel was put back on Texdale ewes to produce prime lambs but lambing difficulties caused a switch to Beltex tups.

This year the 420 Texdale ewes have run with Beltex and Beltex x Charollais rams. Lambing began in early March followed by Texdale shearlings in early April. It was a group of 140 Beltex-sired lambs from last year’s Texdale shearlings that has really proved to the Lawsons what this breed is really capable of.

Away wintered

“These lambs were over-wintered on poor pasture. Even our Swaledale gimmers are away wintered on lower ground, but this land was some of the poorest on the farm,” he says.

The Beltex x Texdale lambs were offered hay during winter and were brought inside in late January and switched on to silage for 10 days before concentrates were introduced.

“I took out 78 from the 140 lambs on 20 February and they averaged 44kg with the heaviest up to 56kg. The first two pens to be sold were £30 over the weight – and that was after just 16 days on cake. When we weighed them they were gaining 2.5kg a head a week.

“There’s nothing like that type of double-cross lamb when it comes to high feed conversion. We’ve had some Swaledale wethers inside and they’d been in almost three months before any were ready to sell,” says Matthew.

“The Texdale is extremely hardy. We still have some of the original Texdale ewes in the flock that were born more than 10 years ago. The Texdales are probably hardier than the Swaledales.

To keep a lid on feed costs this year the Texdale ewes were fed only silage and molasses before being housed just before lambing. Ewes and lambs were being turned out soon after lambing and given 0.25kg of cake for about three weeks.

Texdale shearlings achieve about 160% lambing, but ewes usually reach at least 200% although one year saw them peak at 207%.

Beltex x Texdale lambs from the first batch of 100 ewes to lamb are sold off grass from May onwards at 30-40kg liveweight. The first of last year’s early-March born lambs were sold in late May and weighed 39kg to make £54. The rest of the farm’s Texdale-bred prime lambs are sold off grass throughout summer.

Hardiness

“Every time we take these lambs to market we get farmers asking us what they are. Tradition dies hard and switching even part of a Swaledale flock away from Mule production will not be an easy decision for some. But we’ve found Texdale ewes have an in-built hardiness and an ability to thrive off very little in situations where other ewes capable of carrying prime lambs would need a lot more feed,” says Mr Lawson.