Crossbreds in demand
Demand for crossbred tups
is increasing among
Jeremy Hunt finds out how
they are being bred and
performing in flocks
AFTER four years of selling prime lambs for at least 30p/kg above the days average price, one Cheshire sheep producer is now using his 1000 commercial Texel ewes primarily as tup breeders.
Paul Slater is renowned among north-west butchers for the quality of his prime lambs. Lambs sold in early June were making £3/kg. But Mr Slater has switched the emphasis of his sheep enterprise to meet growing demand for his Beltex x Texel tups.
Despite being a non-pedigree flock with no performance figures, the consistent quality of lambs produced on his Whiteley Hey Farm, Butley Town, Macclesfield, has led to a rapidly increasing demand from other producers.
He has spent 20 years developing his own type of Texel-cross sheep and six years ago started to use Beltex rams. He has been one of Bakewell markets top prime lamb sellers for many years, but in 1999 he sold his first batch of 150 deadweight lambs to Keepac at Preston, Lancs.
The grading sheets showed 108 E and 42 U grades, a standard that has been maintained in lambs sold to Keepac and other deadweight buyers ever since.
There is meticulous selection of ewes and rams at tupping time. "I match all the ewes individually with each tup. I dont just draw 50 ewes out and run them with any ram. It is time consuming, but it pays off," says Mr Slater.
"My biggest ewes go to the Beltex – but not the extreme type – and the smaller ewes run with a Texel."
Last year almost 300 shearling tups were sold from the farm, with many buyers returning to increase their previous years order.
Denbighshire producer John Tilley supplies lambs to Waitrose and is now planning to use Mr Slaters Beltex x Texel tups across his entire flock of 1000 Welsh Mules.
"We will be buying 10 tups this year. We have to maintain top quality in our lambs to meet the Waitrose spec. Our killing percentage on 19.5kg lambs has increased from 47% to 52% since switching to crossbred rams and we are now getting 50% of our lambs in the U conformation grade," says Mr Tilley.
Mr Slater is convinced these sheep are capable of producing top quality prime lambs which never fail to earn a premium price. "Hybrid vigour must come into it because we have proven you can produce a 40kg lamb faster by a Beltex x Texel tup than by a pure Beltex. These lambs have shape and size because we are combining the best of Texel and Beltex."
With almost 300 shearlings to sell this summer, Mr Slater will be among the UKs largest tup producers. Last years best day started with three Welsh producers arriving in one car and ordering 30 rams before leaving.
The flock lambs in two equal batches. The first ewes lamb in February/early March with the rest in April. Management is kept simple. "These ewes virtually look after themselves during the winter," says Mr Slater.
High energy feed blocks are provided, but supplementary rations are based on scanning data. "Single-bearing ewes only receive a handful of shredded beet pulp two weeks before lambing. Ewes carrying twins are fed shredded pulp at about six weeks pre-lambing and then switch to concentrates from three weeks before lambing."
Shredded beet is fed continuously to ewes until the first slaughter lambs are drawn from early May. All the early-born lambs are offered creep-feed.
"From the early lambers, we decide at 12 weeks which lambs are being retained and which are to kill. Lambs for keeping do not see any more creep feed and are clipped in early September to boost growth rates. They are out-wintered and fed shredded beet pulp as the grass deteriorates.
"For April-born lambs, we decide which to retain at birth. Unwanted males are castrated and targeted at the Christmas prime lamb market."
Some of the early lambers achieved remarkable figures last year with one group of three- and four-shear ewes producing a lambing percentage of 222%, he calculates. The flocks overall ewe average is 190%. Ewe hoggs tupped as lambs achieved 110%.
Out of 1000 ewes lambed this year there were only 11 Caesarean lambings, seven of these were single breach presentations for which Mr Slater automatically opts for a section.
Stock selection has always been strict and while conformation is the principle criteria, close attention is also paid to legs, locomotion and style.
The flock is now running both Beltex x Texel ewes as well as pure Texels. Beltex and Beltex x Texel tups are used to maintain the continual criss-crossing breeding pattern.
"I do not want freaky Beltex rams with a back like a razor and a big hindquarter. I need plenty of loin on my rams, tight skins and exceptional fleshing. Not enough emphasis is put on loin, but it is what butchers need to get good-sized chops."
Yorks wholesale butcher Elwin Eastwood says Mr Slaters lambs are "sheer perfection, and it is crossbreeding that is the key".
"For customers demanding top quality lambs they are out of this world with length, thickness and tremendous loins. They are never too fat," he adds. *
• Produce prime lambs.
• Hybrid vigour apparent.
• Carefully selected.