Following a summer of successful pedigree sales and show wins its safe to say Charollais are definitely the breed of the moment in the sheep sector.
With a new record set at the breed’s Welshpool fixture and both the Royal and Royal Welsh interbreed titles taken, there appears to be no stopping the increasing popularity of the breed and it’s something commercial tup breeders are ready to capitalise on.
For Cumbria farmer Jonathan Wales of Thackwood Farm, Raughton Head, Charollais are the breed he’s stuck true to for many years in a bid to convince commercial buyers of the merits of his sheep.
But this confidence has been hard won, with commercial shepherds reluctant to use the breed because of its early reputation for being soft at birth, says Mr Wales, who farms in partnership with his father Thomas and wife Janet. “Farmers were nervous of using the more pink-faced type of Charollais available in the early days. But in the last 10 years I’ve worked hard to breed tups with more hair on their heads the whiter-headed type of sheep are tougher sheep.”
However, while this is one element of Mr Wales’ breeding plans, he is adamant of the need to balance this requirement for sheep to be well fleshed. “Our ram buyers want sheep with backend and we have to provide that too, so its essential to avoid being sidetracked by a single issue.”
And while many in the breeding world are moving towards performance recording, Mr Wales is staying away having previously been involved. “I’m not finding the demand from commercial buyers and with total costs of more than £1000 a year I can’t justify it at the moment. As and when buyers start to ask for figures I’ll review the situation.”
Confident of his sheep’s ability to thrive at grass, Mr Wales turns all his lambs out to grass within 2-3 weeks of lambing in late January and early February. “I’d like to get them out sooner, but the grass wouldn’t be there for them. And while it’s fair to say that in a bad spring we can lose a couple of lambs to the weather, this isn’t necessarily bad as it acts as a self-selection tool, so we only retain the best.”
The move to late January lambing was prompted by Mr Wales to produce shearlings more commercially suited to buyers’ needs. “We used to lamb in December, but that meant keeping lambs indoors for too long and added cost. We rarely sold many tup lambs, so earlier lambing was an unnecessary expense,” he explains.
Ewes are fed well pre- and post-lambing with Mr Wales keen to ensure they milk well. “I’m conscious of the cost of feeding ewes for 4-5 weeks pre- and post-lambing, but lambs need a good start..”
Lambs are weaned at 16-20 weeks old and ewe lambs are then taken off creep feed and left to grow on grass, while tup lambs have access to some feed which is gradually eased off and stopped once they are thriving off grass.
“Tup lambs are then out-wintered on stubble turnips and receive a little supplementary feed. These lambs thrive off stubble turnips and grow tremendous frames over winter. They then go back on to grass in spring and don’t see any trough feed again until mid-July when I start to build them for the sales.”
And it is this sale preparation which is causing Mr Wales some worry this year with bluetongue zone changes an issue. “We sell most of our tups, about 40 a year, at Kelso tup sales. But Scotland is bluetongue-free and we’ll be in a protection zone before the sale, so I’ve made plans to send tups up to a friend in Scotland so they can be in Scotland and remain eligible for Kelso.”
Previous Kelso averages have seen the flock generally averaging around the £400 mark for its annual consignment and topping at £2000 for a shearling sold to Charles Marwood for his Foulrice flock in 2005.