Believing the Texel breed is the UK’s number one commercial terminal sire, Ben Vernon has his sights set high both for his flock and the breed. In the second of a series celebrating young breeders, Jonathan Long visits Derbyshire to find out more.
Juggling a busy working life and helping with the family’s commercial and pedigree sheep flocks, means young Texel breeder Ben Vernon has plenty on his plate.
But that hasn’t stopped the Derbyshire-based Charben flock making rapid progress over the last few years, with Ben quickly gaining a reputation for producing quality breeding stock, which perform for fellow pedigree breeders as well as his commercial customers.
“I’ve always been around Texels, having been brought up with them in the family’s commercial sheep flock, so adding a pedigree flock to the farm was a natural progression,” he says. Ben and his father Richard now run about 400 ewes, including 300 commercial ewes and 70 recipient ewes for embryo transfer work from the Texel flock.
There are also small flocks of Clun Forest and Kerry Hills, too, with about 60 cattle on the farm at any one time, including sucklers, store cattle and dairy heifers which they sell as they calve, although TB is making this harder.
The pedigree flock was founded in 2002 and has enjoyed a number of successes in recent years following a period of investment in AI and embryo transfer work to maximise the flock’s best genetics. “It really is the last five or six years that things have been stepped up a gear for the flock, with the aim of breeding sheep with some potential as pedigree stock as well as producing good, easily fleshed commercial rams too,” says Ben.
The flock sells about 30 commercial shearling rams per year alongside the best of the ram lambs which are sold both privately and at Texel Society and Club sales. Ben says he couldn’t have achieved what he has without the support of his family and friends, as well as local fellow Texel breeders. “My partner Emma is a big support and I’m always able to call of fellow shearer Mike Turner to lend a hand when I need one,” he says. “Mike runs a Texel flock too, so we often give each other a hand.”
Pedigree highlights for the flock include selling Charben Valentine to Robert Cockburn’s Knap flock for 4,500gns, with this lamb going on to be the sire of the reserve overall champion at the Solway and Tyne Club sale, Carlisle, in 2015, Knap Wot A Nut, with this lamb subsequently selling for 5,000gns.
“That was definitely a major step forward for the flock and culmination of several years’ breeding to get to that stage,” Ben says.
In January 2016 he also topped the Chelford sale with a ewe lamb at 2,250gns and sold another on the same day for 1,150gns. Other sale successes include selling Charben Wolf for 2,000gns at Worcester and Charben You Cracker for 2,400gns to the Thomas family’s Bryn Garth flock in 2016.
But Charben breeding has also been behind success for other flocks, with a homebred ewe lamb by Tullagh Real Deal flushed in a shared deal with the Messrs Boden and Davies’ Sportsmans flock, resulting in the 20,000gns Sportsmans Trojan II.
“His mother was VCB1100243, a ewe bred from three generations of homebred dams and going back to a Woodmarsh ewe bought as foundation stock for the flock,” explains Ben. “A tup lamb I sold last September at Carlisle to Martin and Cyril Millar, Northern Ireland, was the sire of their first prize ram lamb and second prize ewe lamb at Balmoral Show this year, too.”
Ben lambs the flock in mid-February, with ewes run at grass for as long as possible, with all sheep put away to keep on local dairy farms for the winter to give the ground a chance to rest and provide a fresh bite for ewes and lambs after lambing.
“I take a couple of weeks off from work for lambing and try to get the ewes and lambs out to grass as soon as possible,” he says. “That can mean they’re out by day and in by night for a while, but it works well. As soon as the weather allows they’re out full-time.” Lambs are creep fed from about three weeks old onwards, with ewe lambs taken off creep as soon as is practical.
“I prefer to let them grow out naturally while continuing to feed the ram lambs ahead of the sales, with the aim being to sell all of them as lambs rather than shearlings,” he adds.
Driving the flock forward in recent years have been a number of notable purchases, including ewes from Gordon Gray’s Ettrick flock, Charlie Boden’s Mellor Vale flock and Robbie Wilson’s Milnbank flock, with all three having a strong influence on the flock’s success.
“The Mellor Vale ewe is one of the most dominant bloodlines in the flock now, while the Milnbank ewe was the dam of the 1,700gns Charben Winner sold at Welshpool as well as breeding a ewe lamb which was champion at Hartington Sports which is the biggest show of Texels in Derbyshire.
“The Mellor Vale ewe is by Baltier Panther and goes back to Castlecairn Nile God on her dam’s side, while the Milnbank ewe is by Castlecairn SAS Commander, with both having been bought at in-lamb sales at Carlisle. The Ettrick ewe was bought in 2005 at Chelford, but lasted well and left a number of good females.”
With the Mellor Vale ewe proving her worth, she has been flushed in recent years and is the grand dam of Charben Warhorse, a ram Ben retained for his own use and sold a small amount of semen from in his first year. “He has bred well, including being the sire of Tomas Evans’ much admired ewe lamb at the Royal Welsh Show in 2016 which later sold for 2,000gns at Carlisle.”
When it comes to tup choices, Ben is keen to ensure any tup he uses carries the depth of fleshing the breed is renowned for, as well as being correct and where possible having the extra bit of flesh to breed top-drawer males and females.
“Over the years I’ve used a number of good tups, including Tullagh Real Deal, a tup I shared with local breeder Frank Rushton, as well as semen from a number of good tups, such as Tullylagan Tonka, Milnbank Special One, Glenside Valhalla and Strathbogie Terminator.”
Ben believes using semen from other breeders’ rams is helping speed up the flock’s progress by allowing him access to genetics he wouldn’t otherwise be able to afford. “Likewise, I find sharing tups a useful way of getting into better breeding. It means I can potentially get a tup which would cost maybe twice as much as I can afford on my own.
“In 2015 I shared a tup with the Blaencar flock of the Morgan family, Brackenridge Woody, and he has left great females. He has plenty of lift and stretch as well as being correct. I’m finding a lot of tups are too raw on the shoulder, so have to be careful of that going forward.
“We need to keep the fleshing right to ensure our commercial customers can breed the type of prime lamb the retail market requires.”
Looking to the future, Ben, who also manages a local chicken farm carrying 140,000 birds as well as contract shearing about 7,000 sheep a year, says the ultimate aim would be to be among the tickets and top prices at the breed’s Scottish National Sale at Lanark as well as continuing to breed strong commercial sheep for local customers.
“I firmly believe the breed is still the number one commercial terminal sire in the UK and has all the qualities needed to keep it there. First and foremost we have to keep the fleshing on the lambs and keep them correct,” says Ben.
“I’m keen to see the flock progress as far as it can and having good people such as Frank Rushton and Charlie Boden around me has been really good as I’ve been developing the flock. They’re help and support has encouraged me to invest in the breed and continue to strive to do better.”