Northumberland sheep farmer, Martyn Archer, finds that combining a traditional production system with the use of reproductive technologies helps to lift breeding stock sale averages on his rented grassland holding. Wendy Short reports.
MULE gimmer lambs out of Martyn Archer’s Northumberland-type Blackface ewes are sold almost exclusively directly into commercial flocks as replacements. At Carry House Farm, near Wark, he ensures his stock fall into the top price bracket by offering a female with good conformation and which can be mated in the year of its birth.
These generally achieve a sale average of £110-£115/head, with bidding topping £135-£150/head.
Mr Archer is a former chairman of the North of England Mule Sheep Association and a current council member. At the heart of his breeding programme is the 35-ewe Bluefaced Leicester Carry House flock.
Tup prices have soared within the Bluefaced Leicester ‘crossing type’ version of the breed of late and he finds that joint ownership is the best way to gain access to top genetics, currently owning shares in four animals.
In 2015, he bought a half-share in G1 Highberries Highlander privately from the ram’s breeder, Neil Marston of Cockermouth in Cumbria, after watching it take the male championship at the Royal Highland Show the previous year. Each party has the opportunity to use Highlander naturally in alternate seasons and has access to its semen straws for AI.
At this year’s Penrith Progeny show Mr Marston won a reserve championship with Highlander and had a winning pen of three Mule lambs out of Swaledale ewes by him. Sons have also been sold up to £10,000.
The year 2015 was altogether favourable for the Carry House Bluefaced Leicester flock when a new breed record was set at Hawes mart for an average price of £7,108 for 12 ram lambs.
This included a Highlander son at £10,000 and Midlock G34-sired progeny at £23,000 and £15,000. Midlock G34 has been a very successful breeder, winning progeny show championships at Peebles with three Bluefaced Leicester ram lambs and Penrith with three Mule ewe lamb, going on to be crowned 2015 Sire of the Year. It was bought at Hawes for £10,000 jointly with fellow Northumberland breeder, Andrew Hunter.
A prized son of the Midlock tup is the 14,000gns Carry House Jackpot J2, jointly-owned with the Reeth-based Porter family, which has sired a number of quality progeny. Recent successes with the Mules include the championship at the Royal Highland Show. Carry House also took the top prize in the 2017 Penrith progeny group show with Jackpot and three of his Mule daughters.
On the same day, Jackpot’s full brother won the same class in Northern Ireland for his new owners, William Adams and Alastair Christie of Ballymena.
AI and ET are used as a method of improving the genetic potential of the flock, although Mr Archer admits that results are unpredictable. For this reason, he always keeps a couple of sheep in reserve when collecting semen for AI use.
He says: “It is advisable to have a plan B and not become too reliant on one particular tup. There should always be one held in reserve, in case the primary tup is not in peak condition on the day of semen collection.
“Semen from all of the tups is tested both before AI day and at collection. A small number of straws are frozen and either held in reserve or sold on, but as a rule, the stored product cannot match the results from the fresh material. Fortunately, all of the best tups have had good longevity, so there has been no reason to take straws out of storage.”
When it comes to ET work, which is used to harvest embryos from six to eight of the top ewes each year, all of the animals involved receive trace element supplementation in the run-up to breeding. Teaser tups have an important role to play and they go in with the females two days before the procedure, when their sponges are removed.
Mr Archer says: “The flushing of donors is carried out on farm to alleviate stress, which must be avoided at all costs. Some producers choose to implant one embryo per ewe but I always use two as a precaution, with any surplus embryos frozen. The average rate is six viable embryos per ewe, so three recipients are required per donor, but egg production can vary widely, with some ewes producing no eggs at all and others up to 15-20. Most of the donors will also be served naturally over the season.
“The recipients are two or three-shear, home-bred ewes in good condition and after implantation they will not be moved for at least four weeks. They run with the pedigree Bluefaced Leicester flock until they lamb and continue to be monitored closely.”
Roughly 150 of the flock’s Mule gimmer lambs are put forward in pens of 25 at the early September sale at Hexham auction, with some 70 marketed at the same outlet a fortnight later. The remainder are sold privately to three regular private buyers.
Mr Archer says: “This year’s returns will depend on prime lamb prices and the cull ewe trade, but the weather has been kind so far and a lot of producers have managed to get their lambs away relatively early at a better trade than last year, which is a good sign.
“The popularity of the Mule has endured because it is so prolific and easy to manage, with a very good mothering instinct and plenty of milk. She may not have the conformation to match a white-faced sheep, but she will be much easier to lamb and not as prone to getting stuck on her back. In terms of kilograms of lamb sold per acre, I believe the Mule is unbeatable.
“Access to breeding techniques such as AI and ET is a bonus and I think that in general, they are under-utilised. While this may seem expensive at first glance, it allows me to sell two extra shearlings per year at Kelso at £2,000-£3,000 apiece. AI use in the Bluefaced Leicester flock gives access to the best genetics available and the use of ET has allowed me to cull the bottom third of the flock and produce more progeny from the best breeders. Over the last three years, all my top lambs have been embryos.”