Southdowns suit northern Scotland

With lambing ewe lambs becoming increasingly common place among commercial flocks as producers target increased returns from their flocks and aim to boost productivity, the question of which ram to use on ewe lambs vexes many.

For many the choice of sire is often a compromise, an easy lambing breed often being the priority over and above anything else. When it came to choosing a ram breed for his ewe lambs Tain, Rossshire-based farmer John Scott faced an equally tricky dilemma.

As a pedigree Texel and Beltex breeder who also runs flocks of New Zealand Suffolks and Aberfields, many would suggest he had suitable breeds already among the 4500-ewe strong flock.

But for Mr Scott, who’s family featured in the hit series ‘This Farming Life’ none of these breeds were quite suited to the job. “My father, James, and I both felt we had to look elsewhere for a breed to tup the ewe lambs with. Unfortunately, we didn’t initially agree on the right breed for the job. He wanted to use Shetlands, whereas I felt Southdowns would be the ideal ram for the job.

“As a result in 2014 we tupped our ewe lambs to a mix of Southdown, Shetland and Beltex rams to see which would be best suited to the job, particularly up here in the north of Scotland where the climate can be challenging.”

When it came to lambing Mr Scott says there was little between the three breeds, with all being easily born from the hoggs. “There is of course a significant management element in this and ensuring the hoggs grow through the winter without their lambs becoming too large is a fine balance. We winter our hoggs on stubble turnips, feeding them a home mixed barley-based ration in the run up to lambing to ensure colostrum quality and maintain energy levels. It has worked well for the last two winters and leaves well grown hoggs with decent potential for the future.”

He says that his decision to use Southdowns was based on a number of factors, first and foremost the easy lambing nature of the breed, with the subsequent lambs’ ability to thrive off just its mother’s milk another key component in the decision. “What we need with the hoggs is a lamb which has plenty of vigour at birth and can grow well on milk early in life. Additionally, as we have a high proportion of Texel crosses in our ewe lambs, the hybrid vigour offered by the Southdown over and above another Texel type is a key factor too.

“Its important that the lamb doesn’t drag the hogg down too, as this can compromise their ability to get back in good condition ready for tupping as shearlings,” explains Mr Scott.

“This is where the Southdown really wins for me over other breeds. The lambs are quick to thicken up and carry a good cover of flesh at every stage of their development. They really grow well off milk and grass, but don’t demand too much of their dam, meaning she also has the chance to continue growing and maintain body condition too,” he explains.

And, while lamb quality is an important part of the equation at Fearn Farm, Mr Scott, who was Farmers Weekly Sheep Farmer of the Year in 2014, says the opportunity to draw Southdown cross lambs as prime lambs at a range of weights is a real bonus too. “The Southdown cross lambs are good shapey lambs and their early finishing nature and the fact they carry flesh at all weights means we can sell them to suit our needs.

“This means we can draw lambs early and allow the hoggs to grow on through the summer ready for tupping again in the autumn. It worked well in 2015 and we sold about half of the Southdown crosses at 16 weeks old straight off their mothers to Woodhead Bros abattoir at Turriff, with these averaging about 19kg deadweight. We then sold the remainder at our on-farm store lamb sale in August.

“This year we’re aiming to draw at least two thirds of of the Southdown cross lambs off their mothers at a similar age. We’ll probably draw anything above 34kg to sell deadweight as they’re deceptively heavy and kill out well.”

So impressed was John with how the Southdown lambs performed that having used two Southdown rams in 2014 he purchased another four in 2015 and increased the number of ewe lambs put to Southdown rams. “We’re firmly fixed on using Southdown rams on ewe lambs now and believe they’re the ideal ram for the job.

“The lambs have a decent wool cover at birth and seem to withstand the worst of the Scottish weather as well as any other breed, taking no harm at all. Meanwhile, the rams are keen to work and each cover 70-80 ewe lambs a year in a short tupping window.”

Ewe lambs at Fearn Farm are given just one cycle with the rams and any not holding to the ram are sold at scanning. “We tup all ewe lambs which are 40kg and above, giving them one turn with the ram. Any which aren’t in lamb after that are split out and sold as we need fertile, productive ewes and ewe lambs which don’t go to the tup won’t make suitable replacements for the main flock,” he adds.

“The Southdown is a great breed for this job, ticking all the boxes we wanted and the rams themselves keep their condition well too, which isn’t always the case with other breeds,” adds John.