Winter-lambing Dorset sheep are the backbone of a new farming enterprise for brothers Matthew and Adam Care in Cornwall. Jennifer MacKenzie reports.
Brothers, Matthew and Adam Care took their first independent step on the farming ladder with the tenancy of an 81 hectare (200 acre) county council farm near Looe, Cornwall, in April 2019.
They took with them the Burhos flock of pedigree Poll and Horn Dorsets which they had previously managed on their parents’ farm.
While the 300 Poll and 70 Horn sheep are run on commercial lines, pursuing pedigree excellence gives the brothers their drive.
Further adding to a milestone year, the flock was awarded champion flock at the Dorset Horn and Poll Dorset Sheep Breeder’s Association’s 2019 annual national flock competition for the first time.
It was also the winner of the best shepherded flock, the best individual stock ram with Poorton Apollo and second in both the ewe lambs and stock rams sections.
Regular and successful exhibitors at the Dorset breed’s early breeding sale, the May Fair in Exeter, the Cares are keen to see their flock pay its way.
“The pedigree sales are an invaluable part of our business but we have got to look after the commercial aspect,” says Adam. “A lot of our customers are buying rams to run on commercial flocks and we cannot lose sight of what they need and jeopardise those sales,” he adds.
“We have always tried to run our pedigree sheep as a solid, commercially-viable flock. We are always mindful of industry and customer requirements to keep the Dorset breed progressing in the future.”
The family’s involvement in the Dorset breed started with Matthew and Adam’s parents, Vivian and Valerie, running a flock of pure-bred unregistered ewes at Burhoes Farm, near Heston, in west Cornwall for a number of years.
Matthew was keen to have a pedigree flock and in 2003 it was registered under the Burhos prefix and the family began improving the bloodlines with pedigree rams purchased at the May Fair.
They began selling pedigree shearling rams at the event in 2011, and in 2013 they sold three shearling rams to average £1,000 with the top ram, Burhos Samson being awarded the best shearling ram prize in the pre-sale show, and selling for 1,200gns to the Wilsey Flock.
A recent trip to Northern Ireland has seen the purchase of a grandson of Samson from the Ballytaggart flock of Thomas Wright and will be used this season for the 2020 crop of lambs.
In 2013 Burhos also won the large flock section of the Dorset association’s annual national competition and it was placed reserve overall.
Numbers of rams sold at the May Fair have gradually been built up and they have been among the prizes, including in 2017 the best pen of rams and the best horned exhibit - which sold for the top price of 2,400gns.
In recent years their pen has averaged in excess £1,000 for the seven to eight rams offered – including 2019 when drawn last in the sale.
Now farming at Lower Lydcott Farm, Widegates, near Looe, the brothers are also running British Blue cross Friesian suckler cows put to the Limousin bull, aiming to have a herd of 25.
Up to 100 suckled calves and store cattle are bought in each year for finishing alongside the home-bred calves. They are sold deadweight to St Merryn Meats, Bodmin.
Cropping is 10ha (25 acres) of kale to graze the ewes and lambs during the winter which is in rotation with spring barley for feed for the sheep and cattle and back to grass to maintain productive grazing ground.
Adam explains: “For us, lambing the majority of the flock in the autumn means we can make extra use of the sheds on the farm which can hold up to 400 ewes prior to the cattle being housed in November.
“By the time the cattle are turned out the lambs are weaned and the ewes can be more tightly stocked. The sheep fit well with what we do.”
The ewes are run with teaser rams and then are run with rams in groups of 40 per ram. They are run with the rams for two cycles to produce a tight lambing.
Ewes are housed for a week to 10 days before lambing begins on October 10, and in 2019 350 ewes were lambed in October. Weather dependent, ewes and lambs are turned out onto grass within a week of lambing.
They are turned out into groups of 50 for management and feeding purposes, grouped on age and whether suckling single or twin lambs.
These are then on grass for up to six weeks and when the lambs are introduced to creep feed they are then turned onto the kale crop around the end of November.
In 2020 the first lambs were sold off their mothers from January 20. The lambing percentage for ewes is 175 per cent.
Any ewes which miss the October lambing are run on to lamb in January alongside the ewe lambs.
The lambs are all finished off grass, with some creep feed depending on the weather, by late April-May time.
In 2019 the Cares sold 430 lambs out of both ewes and ewe lambs on a premium supermarket contract to average 19.8kg deadweight with 40 per cent R grade, 55 per cent U grade and 5 per cent E grade and the majority 3L for fat cover.
Ewe lambs and ram lambs to be retained for breeding or pedigree sales are selected when they weigh around 40kg. Carcase quality and growth rates are assessed and the mother’s breeding record are taken into account.
Adam says: “We make our own records of the individual ewes, what they produce and their profitability in the flock. We try to breed Dorsets which are easily-fleshed, of good length - sheep that are true to the breed type and which have character about them.”
In 2019, 94 ewe lambs born the previous October were selected to go to the ram and 91 of them were scanned in lamb with a 135 per cent lambing percentage.
They are housed and lambed inside. They are only turned out with one lamb and the twins are usually able to be fostered on one of the January-lambing ewes.
“We have always lambed the ewe lambs. We find it enhances their mothering ability and the lamb they produce offsets the cost of rearing, keeping replacement costs to a minimum” says Adam.
“When they lamb for the second time when they are two years old they are a dream to lamb. It may take them until their third crop to be a fully mature size but we have found the benefits to the business outweigh any negatives,” he adds.
Each year between 25 and 30 shearling rams are sold for breeding, either through the ring at the May Fair, at markets in Cornwall and Devon, or privately. They are sold to pedigree breeders throughout the UK as well as to repeat commercial customers.
As well as the ram sales around 60 pedigree females are reared each year to sell either off farm or at Society sales, this is an area of the business the Cares feel has scope to grow and increase sales going forward.
The Cares appreciate the true commercial abilities of the Dorset as a flock of Dorset Mules bred out of the North of England Mule flock and run at Burhos produce Suffolk cross lambs in January for the early market.
The Dorset cross Mules are lambed in January, usually scanning 185-190 per cent, and again lambs are sold deadweight at around the 20kg carcase weight.
Adam says: “The Dorset is a very flexible and versatile breed. They are able to lamb out of season and so have the ability to lamb three times in two years. They can fit seamlessly into many different livestock enterprises. They can also work with an arable rotation, utilising break crops and at the same time improving and conditioning the soil. They give huge benefits to the following arable crop.
Matthew and Adam say they want to continue to improve the quality of the Dorset sheep they breed and aim to increase the number of ewes and ewe lambs lambed to 550 - lambing more of the flock in January.