County Durham farmer switches from Swaledales to Beltex

A switch of breeds has helped a County Durham couple increase their stocking rate and achieve top auction mart prices for their lambs, without reliance on concentrate feeding.

Philip and Bev Robson, Middle Horsleyhope, Consett, noticed that Beltex cross lambs were attracting premiums of £15-£20/head in the marketplace, compared with other breeds and crossbreeds.

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As a result, over the past 12 years they have bred out the Swaledales in their 600-ewe flock, while continuing to use the Bluefaced Leicester and Suffolk, with the Texel also part of their revised breeding programme.

They say their system allows them to take full advantage of hybrid vigour.

“We have retained the Leicester, because it gives us lambs with a good, tight skin which catches the bidder’s eye,” explains Mr Robson, whose rented farm covers 202ha of Severely Disadvantaged Area (SDA) land.

“The Suffolk breeds good replacements when put to Leicester crosses, and these go to the Beltex or Texel. The Texel is very prolific and milky; one of our Texel cross Leicester ewes reared four decent lambs without problems for two consecutive years.”

Philip and Bev Robson

Philip and Bev Robson

While their main focus is on selling finished lambs, they do sell stores on occasion, achieving £96.50/head for a batch of 60 at the auction mart last November.

Stock prices

Buyers have said they look out for the Robson’s pens, as they routinely kill out at 52-58%.

The overall average price for 2014 was close to £100/head, at a weight range of 37-42kgs.

Income is boosted by the sale of 12-15 commercial tups to private buyers.

“Having a ready market for both stores and finished lambs gives us flexibility and helps with cashflow,” he comments.

“If there is pressure on grass, we simply send a couple of batches to market. Another factor is price volatility – it seems to be here to stay and selling little and often reduces risk.”

Sadly, this year’s market has not been so buoyant, although volatility has continued. The most recent trip to market netted £72 a head, for lambs weighing 37-38kgs.

However, lambs sold the week before at similar weights averaging £85.50, while in August, a batch of stores averaged £81. A number of store lambs are sold privately on occasion.

The couple attend a number of fatstock shows with commercial cattle from their 30-cow suckler herd and their prime lambs also compete.

At last year’s Great Yorkshire they won the carcass competition with a three-quarter-bred Beltex wether. It graded E3L at 22.5kgs deadweight, with a killing out percentage of 62.5.

Breeding

The Robsons put a strict limit on the amount they pay for tups, which are the only sheep they buy in.

They pay a maximum of 1,000gns, with rams that will produce lambs with a high killing-out percentage a priority.

This trait is considered essential, for maintaining buyers’ interest and encouraging repeat business.

“We like short, thick Beltex tups, but they are getting harder to find. Long, leggy types are just not suitable for this farm and shape is lost when they grow in height. Beltex ewes are small, compared with other breeds, and we have increased our stocking rate by head, so we have more lambs to sell,” Mr Robson comments.

The ewes are lambed in two groups, with the first lambed inside in mid-March and the second outside from 10 April.

In the three-week run-up to lambing, about £12 a head is spent on an 18% protein concentrate with added glucose, to prevent twin-lamb disease.

They also receive a vitamin and chelated mineral drench with low copper levels, but no supplementation is provided for ewes and lambs.

“The Beltex is hardy and the lambs are up and away soon after being born,” says Mr Robson. “They are weaned in mid-August and feeding is mainly limited to the 20 to 30 selected for showing.

“Creep feed has just gone up again, and at £200/tonne, we cannot justify the expense given today’s market. But it is worth spending £4 to £5 a head on show lambs and to get the last of the stragglers away during the market dip, when the price can fall by as much as £6 a week.”

A Beltex ewe will produce four to five crops and culls are also in demand, says Mr Robson.

“The culls go through Hexham and we have been receiving £80-£110 a head, which makes a welcome contribution towards income.

“Prices have been disappointing, but we are still in profit. It is said that quality will always sell in a bad market and we like to think that our breeding programme allows us to do just that.”