Sire switch gears up production on Cumbrian sheep farm

Terminal-sired lambs are now hitting specification four weeks earlier since Cumbrian farmers Patrick, Robert and Rowena Morris-Eyton, switched breeds.

Flock data at Beckside Farm, Millom, shows lamb daily liveweight gains for 2015 were 100g/day higher on Abermax-cross lambs than Texel-cross lambs from their home-bred North of England Mules.


But this isn’t the only breed change at Beckside, where the Morris-Eytons are also in their second year of crossing their pure Swaledales drafts to an Aberfield instead of a traditional Bluefaced Leicester.

See also: New terminal sire available to improve lamb profitability

They’ve also reduced work lambing hoggs by using a Primera ram to help with lambing ease. This has given smaller lamb birthweights around the 3.5-4kg mark (4-4.25kg average for Abermax/Texel-sired lambs) meaning only 5% of lambs were pulled, down from the usual 25%.

Terminal benefits

And while increased daily liveweight gains are important, the key thing for Patrick Morris-Eyton, who farms with parents Robert and Rowena, is that the gains have been off forage, which means he only needs to supplement 200kg of concentrates to the last dozen or so pet lambs and “stragglers”.

“This is down from two tonnes of concentrates I used on the Texel-cross lambs,” explains Patrick, who now has his second crop of Innovis lambs on the ground.

“The genetic change must have had a big impact. The fields are the same and we tried the Abermax tups on the same North of England Mules we’ve bred on the farm.”

See also: How new entrant has built up a flock of 600 sheep

Beckside prime lambs supply St Merryn at 44kg live to yield a 22kg R3L carcass.

Reducing average days to slaughter from 180 days to 156 days means lambs start leaving in mid-June rather than the end of July. This has made grazing and silage production easier for Swaledale wethers and summer heifers.  

Stocking rates and grazing performance

Farm productivity has also been boosted by the smaller 70kg Aberfield Mule, which is some 15kg lighter than the traditional North of England Mule (80-85kg).

A 7% to 8% smaller sheep has seen stocking increase from nine outfits/ha to 11.6 outfits/ha on better land and the farm’s in-bye land carrying capacity has lifted from 400 to 500 sheep, with a target of 650 hoped to be reached by 2021.

Making the move

Patrick decided to cross a third of his drafts (65 Swaledales) to an Aberfield in 2014. This followed discussing new breeding programmes and approaches to farming while attending Cumbria Hill Farm Discussion Group meetings and time with the Tesco Future Farmer Foundation course.

Beckside Farm

  • 263ha plus hill grazing rights (850 acres)
  • 500 pure Swaledales on home performance recording
  • 200 Swaledales for crossing
  • 280 Mules put to Abermax or Primera
  • 250 Holstein dairy herd averaging 10,000 litres/lactation
  • 25 Red deer
  • Receives 150-160cm of rain/year
  • Headquarters of the family diversification, Beckside Construction (Hydro Electric Power)

And although the Aberfield produces a smaller Mule, Patrick is not concerned about lower cull ewe values, saying they lack in height but make up in conformation and look similar to Texdale.

Patrick remains interested in breeding Swaledales traditionally and showing them at big association events in the North of England. The main Swaledale flock has been performance recorded on the farm’s own data system for two years after the farm went fully EID in 2010.

Grassland management

“Not all of this is down to genetics,” admits Patrick, who has stepped up the rotational grazing to get more from grass.

“We’re in the early stages of trying to intensively graze a paddock for three days, whereas before we could have left them on a pasture for a week to 10 days.”

This has already resulted in an increase in grass growth, with 8ha of land being closed off for silage to produce 220 round bales for the sheep and cattle.


Similarly, a trial using an Aberfield across 50 crossing Swaledales and a Bluefaced Leicester on a further 50 allowed the farm to compare the Bluefaced Leicester Mule to the Aberfield Mule.

In 2016, the Aberfield Mules weaned lambs 4kg heavier at 12.5 weeks, with breeds matching each other on scanning and weaning percentage.

This lambing, most of the Mule gimmers produced have been sired by an Aberfield as part of Patrick’s aim to transition the flock to lamb outdoors.

Currently ewes are housed in the New Year and placed into a field within 24 hours of lambing. 


Traditional Mule

Aberfield Mule

Lambing ease (% assisted)



Lamb birthweight



Average ewe body condition score



Weaning weight



Killing out at specification R3L




In all, three Innovis sires tupped 465 sheep


Selection criteria


One Aberfield

100 Swaledales

Maternal traits such as milk is important. Mature ewe size EBV is chosen as close to zero as possible or below zero. Growth rates are important “to a point”

Tupped 100 ewes at 175%

One Abermax

(One was removed from breeding programme after it caught pneumonia)

210 North of England Mules

Lean meat score around 0, although 0.2 is “OK”. Fat depth of 0 is idea to avoid penalties.

Tupped 210 ewes in lamb at 220% while gaining condition off grass-only diet. 90% of ewes lambed within first three weeks

One Primera

50 Aberfield Mules  and 40 North of England Mule hoggs and 65 ewes

Primera chosen with moderate to high scores for scan weight (0.6) and muscle depth (0.4). Fat depth of 0 and overall terminal sire index of 124 above an average of 99.

One Primera tupped 90 hoggs in lamb at 120%


Tupped 65 ewes in lamb at 215%

A big draw to Innovis bred sires was the fact they are performance recorded which gives Patrick the ability to select for lamb vigour – currently sires must be in the top 5-10% of the breed for this trait. Three Innovis sires have tupped 465 sheep last autumn. 

Heavy clay soils, peaty areas and the high rainfall (152cm a year on parts of the farm) is stopping the flock being run as an all year round outdoor flock.

As such, winter housing in the New Year will remain a necessity but a piecemeal transition to outdoor lambing will start next year and ideally result in all sheep lambing outside at Beckside by 2021.

“The only sheep that lamb outside here are the Swaledales with singles,” explains Patrick, who is trying to mimic the type of system that can run 1,000 head of sheep to one person.

Data decisions

Every lamb on the farm is weighed at birth and ewes are scored for lamb vigour and weight, milkiness and lambing ease.

Lamb weights are taken fortnightly if possible, although Patrick explains that this is a time consuming process which should become easier with the installation of a static pneumatic air-squeeze crate to automatically draft and weigh sheep.

“We’ve now been culling for feet for two years,” says Patrick, who records every sheep with a lameness problem. “We are in a wet part of the country so foot rot can be a problem and there is a bit of contagious ovine digital dermatitis with us also having a dairy herd here.”

Sheep are given one chance with lameness problems, one of the “biggest challenges on the farm” but mastitis, prolapses or any lambing problems are deemed a culling offence.