Marrying traditional sheep farming with modern management techniques to produce sheep suited to large scale commercial farming on an LFA unit is the ethos behind David and Sally Dixon’s successful Cumbrian sheep business.
And it is this dedication to breeding sheep their lowland customers want which has led the Dixons to developing valuable new European markets for their Mule and Texel x Mule ewe lambs.
This year will see more than 800 ewe lambs head across the English Channel, with 550 Texel x Mule ewe lambs heading for France and all the Mule ewe lambs from the farm sold to a Belgian producer, says David. “This is a valuable market for us and saves a lot of work preparing sheep for sale. Export buyers are paying premium prices and take care of all the export costs, too.”
With the farm running 350ha of moor land, Swaledale ewes form the backbone of the business, with 300 bred pure and 350 crossed to Bluefaced Leicester tups to produce Mules. “We essentially run a fully stratified flock, with Swaledales on the moor and Mules and Texel x Mules on the lower ground. Having lost all the moor sheep in 2001, we have gradually rebuilt this flock to the 650 ewes it is now and future policy will see us become more selective on the female lines to ensure we only retain the best and continue to improve the flock.”
The value of the Mule trade and a desire to minimise the disease risks to the flock led David and Sally to develop a small Bluefaced Leicester flock to produce their own tups. “We wanted to cut the chances of buying in disease and ensure we had a suitable source of tups to breed the type of Mule our customers demanded.”
The same theory has been used with sourcing Texel tups too and a nucleus Texel flock has been established to breed rams for use on Mule ewes to produce Texel x Mule ewes both for sale and retention in the farm’s lowland flock. These Texel x Mules are then put to bought-in Hampshire Down sires to produce fast growing, early finishing prime lambs. “This has helped balance the cash flow in the business, giving some earlier income than we would normally have had.”
Feeding of the flock relies on homegrown silage and bought in concentrates with sheep also receiving feed blocks to increase forage use from both grass and silage fed at grass in early winter. “Ewes are housed in early January and ad-lib fed clamp silage and a sugar beet pulp and distillers grain ration which is switched to a concentrate four weeks before lambing. Housed ewes are grouped according to scanning and condition score.”
Grassland management is a particular passion of both David and Sally and the silage ground has all be re-seeded, while some areas of the moor have also been historically improved with both clover and grass seed. “Grassland is also aerated to reduce compaction and this has yielded a good response. On top of that all land is routinely soil tested and fertiliser applied appropriately, with little nitrogen used, particuarly as clover levels in swards have increased. In future we hope to use poultry muck from our laying hens to further save costs.”
On the marketing front, aside from the ewe lambs sold for export, prime lambs are sold mainly liveweight, although Hampshire Down crosses are sold deadweight to maximise the value achievable. “A lot of liveweight buyers don’t appreciate how well these lambs can grade and kill out. In 2009 all prime lambs sold, including pure Swaledale and Mule wethers and Texel and Hampshire Down crosses averaged £62, while ewe lambs averaged £81.”
Environmentally, David and Sally are both keen to make use of schemes when available and are currently waiting to agree an upland ELS scheme, although they are reluctant to sacrifice productivity of their improved moorland.
WHAT THE JUDGES LIKED
• Good use of natural resources
• Empathy with the environment
• Developed new markets
• Strong focus on health management
• 1457 acre upland unit, including 864 acres of moorland
• 1100 ewes
• Exporting breeding sheep to Europe
• Laying hen diversification