The joys of using Southdown tups on ewe lambs

 Lambs are hardy and fast growing and hold their condition, says Scott McCreath

Lambs are hardy and fast growing and hold their condition, says Scott McCreath

A  young  farmer  who  is  restocking  his family’s Scottish upland farm with Lleyn breeding ewes is following his father’s lead by tupping ewe lambs with a Southdown.

Cocklaw Farm, a 670-acre holding at Cockburnspath,  Berwickshire,  at  one  time carried 1500  ewes  but  the  flock  was dispersed  when the McCreath family chose to concentrate their farming enterprise on growing malting barley.

Sheep  didn’t  disappear  from  the  farm because some of the land was let out for grazing and this arrangement  continued until  Scott  McCreath decided  the  time was  right  for  the  family  to  reestablish a flock of their own.

The goal was to create a top-quality flock so the first breeding ewes he bought in 2013 were two first prize pens at sales in Stirling and Carlisle.

“Sheep are expensive to buy but we wanted the best  sheep  for  the  foundation  flock,’’  explains Scott, who farms with his father, Douglas, brother, James, and wife, Keisha.

He chose Lleyns because of their ability to produce lambs quickly off grass in an upland situation.

Ewes are tupped to a pure Lleyn or a Texel but Scott  wanted  to  use  another  breed  on  the ewe lambs. 

At Kelso two years ago, he was buying tups for the ewes when his eye was drawn to a Southdown ram entered in the sale by Scarborough breeder Anthony  Glaves.  “At  that  point  I  remembered seeing Southdowns on our farm because dad used to use them on all his Mule hogs. I thought I would buy one to try it out.’’

That ram has since tupped 50 ewe lambs a season. “It is no bother for him, he could easily tup more than 50,’’ says Scott.

Delighted with the performance

He  is  delighted  with  its  performance.  “As  long as  he  has  got  teeth  and  can  walk  he isn’t  going anywhere, if he is fit he will be staying.’’

Scott breeds from ewe lambs because he believes every animal on the farm must earn its keep. “The  ewe  lambs  are  big  enough  and  we  don’t want massive ewes in the flock so we are happy to breed from them. If we didn’t tup them at this point they would be on the farm for a year, eating grass, with no purpose.’’

The Southdown is turned in with the ewe lambs on November 5th – last year the group numbered 80 – and he remains with the group for 30 days. “We only tup the first 50, the rest run on as yearlings so they will never know the joy of a Southdown!’’ Scott laughs.

Ewe  lambs  are  tupped  at  body  condition  score 2.5 – 3 and they carry that condition right through to weaning. Scott says they don’t lose condition, even when they have lambs at foot. “That goes for the hogs too.’’

This year the ewe lambs tupped to the Southdown scanned at 127% and started lambing in mid-April. The Lleyn ewes, which scanned at 198%, lambed during the same period.

The farm is exposed to north easterly winds that blow in from the North Sea so later lambing
allows  the  McCreaths  to  maximise  production from grass. 

Lambing takes place indoors but ewes and lambs are turned out to grass quickly. “They are not in the  shed  for  long,’’  says  Scott.  “If  a  ewe  lambs in the morning and the weather is good she will be  turned  out  that  afternoon  or  the  following morning. Ideally we would prefer to lamb outside but housing gives us more control.’’

At housing, singles are fed haylage only while the twins and the triplet-carrying ewes, which are run as one group, are supplemented with 0.5kg of an 18% protein ewe roll a month before they give birth. 

Grass is cheap…the lambs never get any feed

“Grass is cheap, much cheaper than feed, so once the ewes are turned out they don’t get any
supplementary feed and the lambs never get any feed at all unless they are kept as stores,’’ Scott explains.

As stores, they receive 0.5kg from February 1st for three weeks, until they finish.

The lambs shoot out

One  of  the  joys  of  tupping  with  a  Southdown  is lambing  ease,  Scott  reports.  “The Southdown doesn’t  look  like  a  traditional  easy  lambing terminal  sire  but  that  is definitely not  the  case, the lambs are wedge-shaped and just shoot out.

“They are very easily born. The mother’s just spit the lambs out and they are quick on their feet.’’

And  the  Southdown  keeps  on  giving  because growth is phenomenal, he adds. “The Southdowns are  the  first  lambs  away  even  though  they  have been born to hogs.

“We store a few to sell in January and February and we find that they don’t shoot away and get leggy like other breeds.’’

Scott  had  spent  time  working  and  travelling  in New Zealand and was aware that Southdowns were  commonplace  among  flocks.  “The  New Zealanders like the Southdowns because they are not  soft,  they  are  not  slow  and  their  back  ends stay clean.’’

His  ewe  lambs  are  first  to  wean,  when  their offspring  are  9-10  weeks  old;  the  ewes follow from there, after their lambs have been dosed for nematodirus. 

Weaning is co-ordinated with hay and silage harvesting  to  allow  lambs  to  finish  on  the
aftermaths.

The  Southdown  lambs  finish  at  30-40kg  in September and October or at 45-55kg in January and February.

Lambs are hardy and fast growing and hold their condition,  says  Scott.  “They  don’t  go back,  they hold  their  condition  even  until  February.  They don’t shoot away to become a 80kg carcass.’’

He  sells  all  the  lambs  live  through  Harrison  and Hetherington at St Boswells, Melrose. 

 Scott McCreath’s Southdown lambs are always his first sold, even though they have been born to ewe lambs

Scott McCreath’s Southdown lambs are always his first sold, even though they have been born to ewe lambs

Strong demand for Southdown sired lambs

There is strong demand for lambs produced by the Southdown, he says. “They are really sought after  right  now.  Compared  to  a  Lleyn  lamb  they have  much  better  body conformation,  you  get a  much  better  product  from  the  Southdown,  a better commercial lamb.

“Because  we  don’t  sell  direct  to  an  abattoir  we don’t know their grades but we have hung a few up and they have made Rs and Us.’’

The purpose of the Lleyn is to breed replacements, Scott  explains.  “They  are  the  ultimate mother ewe.’’

He also produces pedigree tups, to sell and use on his own flock.

Ewe numbers are increasing year on year – in the first year there were 100 and now there are 180. Scott’s target is to build numbers back up to 1500 but admits it won’t be a quick process because he has a rigorous culling policy. “I would have more sheep if I wasn’t so hard on them,’’ he accepts.

Any  animal  that  prolapses  is  culled  as  are  those with  recurring  foot  problems.  The  first case  of lameness is treated but is it recurs the animal is not used to breed replacements. On the third occasion, the ewe is culled. 

 Scott McCreath says one of the joys of tupping with a Southdown is lambing ease

Scott McCreath says one of the joys of tupping with a Southdown is lambing ease

Rigorous health policy pays dividends

It is tough being an underperforming sheep at Cocklaw. “We cull for teeth and anything that has had a difficult lambing is removed from the flock. 

You don’t want to be a sheep here unless you are a good sheep!’’ Scott admits. “You  don’t  get to  be  an  old  sheep  here  unless you are producing the goods. I am in the business
of breeding so I might as well be breeding good ones. I don’t want to carry passengers that are not performing.’’

But a ewe lamb that only produces a single lamb is  spared.  “It  doesn’t  seem  fair  to  cull them  for having  one  lamb,’’  concedes  Scott,  showing  his softer side.

Lameness  is  treated  with  long  acting  antibiotics on  a  case  by  case  basis.  “We  don’t get foot  rot or  CODD,  just  some  cases  of  scald,  so  we  don’t footbath or trim,’’ says Scott.

The number of sheep with scald has been higher than normal this year because of abnormally wet conditions. “The ground has been wet and muddy but luckily we are a dry farm. The land is mostly on the hill, it is the farms that are below us that get the worst of the rain.’’

Scott  uses  faecal  egg  counts  (FEC)  to  establish which lambs need worming. “The lambs get wormed for nematodirus and are then wormed on a case by case basis. We have the same policy for fluke.’’

Thin ewes are tested and if they test positive they are wormed. The fate of those that test negative is sealed, Scott says. “If they don’t have worms they are culled for being thin.’’

Lambs are vaccinated for pasteurellosis pneumonia and clostridial diseases and the dose is repeated four  weeks  later,  at  the  same  time  as  ewes  get their booster. At the same time, the sheep get a trace element bolus containing copper, selenium, iodine and cobalt. “Our land is deficient in copper so we bolus the ewes in February and the lambs when they are weaned,’’ says Scott.

Brexit uncertainty

The  farm  has  re-entered  sheep  production  at  a time when Brexit has created an unknown future for the sector. The uncertainty is a worry for Scott but  he  is  resolutely  confident  that there  will  be a good future, but only for those businesses that take efficiency seriously. 

“As an industry we are going to have to be more efficient with treatments, lameness, everything.

A  lot  of  farmers  keep  sheep  with  very  bad  feet just for the sake of having that sheep but that isn’t doing them or anyone else any favours.’’

And,  Scott  adds,  it  is  vital  to  deliver  on specification.  “We  have  to  produce  lambs  that
meet  specifications,  there  is  no  excuse  for  not delivering on that.’’