15 August 1997

Suffolks shape up for annual trip to Kelso

Getting tups into tip-top condition has been a priority at Rugley, as Tim Relf reports

NOT long now and the Jacksons – and a wagon-full of rams – will be heading to Kelso for the big one-day auction.

Selling Suffolks at the event has become an annual ritual for Alan and Lorna, who have entered 24 for this years offering on Sept 12.

Alan is hopeful of beating last years prices, when his best was £920, with an average of £593 for 22 sheep.

He consigns about the same number every year, helping establish a regular customer base. "Finding new customers can be difficult."

The auction comes at a time of buoyant demand for breeding sheep. At the Suffolk Society sale at Edinburgh last month the highest bid was 54,00gns.

Alan was at Edinburgh – but in an observational capacity. As he says: "Theres no way we want to spend that sort of money on four wheels, let alone on four legs."

The rams making the trip north of the border are currently on "shiftwork", outside at night and housed in the day. This is their routine for four to five weeks prior to Kelso.

"Keeping them inside avoids headfly problems. It also helps keep them clean, which is not always easy in a wet summer like this.

"Housing tups gets them used to being handled, too, which is useful for sale day. And I can give them their daily ration of sugar beet pulp and barley from outside the pen, without being nudged and knocked."

Nights they spend on silage aftermath, which, near the shed, makes life easier for both stock and stockman.

"Being outside some of the time helps their feet," says Alan.

And feet will be one of the first things that potential buyers look at. "People also want a tup that is long, has tight skin and good gigots."

Alan reckons hes got a better selection than last year. Some are by a new sire bought jointly with another breeder for 3800gns from the West End flock.

"Theyve also received plenty of tender loving care as lambs. They were born in January when we had more staff. Sadly, this extra member of staff disappeared in the post-BSE cutbacks.

"But you dont know how good your rams are until you arrive at Kelso. Until then, youve only been looking at your own."

The animals will be dipped next week. Theyll also be put on the scales on Sept 1, at which point theyll probably weigh about 120kg.

Also on the job list is combing and dressing. With each sheep dressed twice, it takes two-and-a-half man hours apiece. Its a task which comes at a busy time, when there are other priorities – such as harvest and getting oilseed rape in the ground.

"Probably an expensive hobby," says Alan, who may yet decide to abandon the process. "A good sheep will sell whether its dressed or not."

Rugley rams are also presented wearing less wool than many. Shearing took place in May, four months later than some farmers.

"Hopefully, having less wool allows buyers to get a good look at the animal itself."

As well as the traditional "eye appeal", buyers at Kelso will be keen to see the rams estimated breeding value figures (see Business July 11, 1997).

One of the questions Alan and Lorna will be most frequently asked will be: Which one is your favourite?

"Its funny," says Alan. "People will often pick their favourite and then ask me that question – hoping we share the same opinion."

Although Kelso is a multi-breed auction, only Suffolks are consigned from Rugley. "Otherwise, with different breeds going under the hammer at the same time, I could end up trying to be in two places at once."

Alan sells most other tups privately, although he may travel to Carlisle on Sept 5 to sell a few Texels this year.

Similarly, theres a network of local customers for the breeding females, of which 300 were sold last year. Such Suffolk cross ewe lambs – out of half British Milksheep ewes – will probably be worth around £55 this year, says Alan.

They represent the surplus after the flock has retained its own breeders. This closed flock policy was introduced in 1992, allowing better genetic improvement and disease control.

It also reduces the dependency on buying replacements, which can be a big cost item. "Were not now at the mercy of the market."

Signet figures for last year show Rugleys average ewe depreciation was £9. "You can do everything you can to produce the right quality lamb at the right weight, but the price ultimately depends on the market. We cant control that. But we can influence the costs, and flock depreciation is a key area."

Weather, meanwhile, remains another unpredictable. The lack of sunshine and persistent rain havent helped the lambs.

Its been a slow year, with the 100-plus sold representing about half the number gone at the same time in 1996. "They havent fleshed well – and so the grading results havent been as good."n

Grey skies and August rain have not helped the lambs finish.

RUGLEY FARM

&#8226 A 280ha (690-acre) arable and grass unit in the north east, farmed by Alan and Lorna Jackson on a full agricultural tenancy from the Duke of Northumberland.

&#8226 Heavy land growing combinable crops and grass, 25% in the LFA.

&#8226 Continental cross beef cattle finished on semi-intensive system.

&#8226 British Milksheep producing prime lambs, plus small pedigree Suffolk and Texel enterprises.

&#8226 Three full-time employees, supplemented by casual labour.


Kelso – overall ram averages last year:

£/head

Blackface shearlings652

Border Leicester612

Blueface lambs561

Suffolk469

Texel415

Charollais349

NC Cheviot312


Rugley 1997

Lamb marketing:

Grade%

R78

U22

Fat%

231

3L62

3H7

Average deadweight 19.7kg

Average price £44/head

The Jacksons with one of the 20-plus tups heading for Kelso.