For as long as he has been breeding sheep, Ian Murray has strived to be at the top of his game when it comes to producing stock for sale. Hannah Park reports.
Ian Murray has been successfully turning out quality, high index progeny for some time now.
Targeting the high end commercial market, his main outlet is selling pedigree Texel rams and he will typically market 45 to 50 homebred shearlings from his 150-ewe pedigree flock each year.
Sheep are run over a 60-hectare (150-acre) site made up of mostly owned alongside some rented land on the outskirts of Wooler, Northumberland.
Here, a small number of Texel ewes are also tupped with the Bluefaced Leicester to produce cross-bred tups
and females which are sold privately off-farm each year.
A 50-head commercial flock is also kept and crossed back and forth between the Texel and Bluefaced Leicester to breed replacement females and, up until this year, recipients for embryo transfer work. Surplus females are sold privately off-farm each year, while male lambs not sold for breeding are finished.
Foundations of the Glenway Texel flock originate in 1991, when Mr Murray bought his first group of 17 pure-bred Texels, and from there, he began to build numbers and invest in breeding alongside his father, Fred.
Mr Murray says: “I built up initial numbers from 1991 until I went away to study at Harper Adams in 1997 when I decided to sell the flock, as I felt I was too far away from home to manage the sheep properly.
“When I came home in 2000, I was keen to re-establish a flock again. I managed to get back some of my original breeding by flushing some of the ewes I had sold, as well as buying in a few smaller flocks which were dispersing.
“We also invested heavily in tups around this time, including a quarter share in 48,000gns Douganhill Jeronimo in 2003 which did a good job of getting the ewes where we wanted them.”
Following a reduction sale in 2010, Mr Murray bought-out his father’s share of the flock and for the last 10
years he has focused more on flushing his best female lines to build numbers back up from 30 to where they are today.
This focus on breeding top end genetics has facilitated the Glenway flock’s involvement in exporting Texel genetics into Europe and further afield over the years, as well as attracting show and sale ring headlines which continue to build Mr Murray a well-regarded reputation.
He says: “We were involved in exporting the first consignment of British Texels to Switzerland in 2009, followed by more tups and females to the same destination the following year.
“This later led to the opportunity to export some of our tups to Germany, and we were also among the first to export British Texel genetics back to France in 2012 as well as sending semen to the USA in the past.”
It is the autumn breeding sales which have long proved to be the mainstay of the business’s income though, the pinnacle being Kelso ram sales where Mr Murray will sell up to 30 rams each year.
His most successful year to date here came in 2019 when he sold Glenway Billy the Kid for £8,000. One of several big money makers by Glenway Ace of Diamonds, Mr Murray has used this sire heavily in 2019 and 2020, regarding him as one of his best homebred breeding rams in recent years.
Other successful years at Kelso include 2014, when he sold 22 tups to average £1,420, including his Royal Highland Show champion that year, Glenway Universe, for £6,000.
Mr Murray also sells rams at Hexham mart and some privately each year, alongside the National Sheep Association Wales and Border sale at Builth Wells, which he sold at for the first time last year and had planned on returning to before it, alongside Kelso and others, were forced to cancel due to Covid-19 restrictions.
Any lambs which do not make the grade as breeding stock are finished and sold at Wooler Auction Mart.
“It is disappointing [sale cancelations],” Mr Murray says.
“Although understandable given the circumstances. A lot of breeders will go to the big breeding sales to buy their new stock tups, and there is no better shop window or place for selling shearling tups.
“Due to Kelso being cancelled, Hexham Mart has, thankfully, teamed up with Lawrie and Symington to create a one-day sale of 1,200 tups that would normally be sold in rings five, seven and nine. This sale will take place on September 11 at Lanark mart.”
Mr Murray also enjoys the showing scene and will generally pull out about four ram lambs and two or three ewe lambs to show each year, exhibiting at a handful of shows locally and nationally with credible success.
These include in 2018 when he took the sheep inter-breed and champion of champion titles at Northumberland Show with a homebred gimmer out of a Brackenridge Underdog sired ewe by Garngour Yeltsin.
In the same year, he also took the breed reserve male championship at the Royal Highland with Glenway Ace of Diamonds, having taken the breed and overall reserve championship at the same event in 2014.
Mr Murray says: “I enjoy the showing; it is a good shop window for selling stock and it has helped me make the sales I have over the years. It is also a good social, I have made many friends through the years and it is good get off-farm and mix with other likeminded people.”
Back at home breeding will start on October 5, when artificial insemination (AI) is used on most of the pedigree Texels. Last year 88 per cent held in the first cycle using fresh semen, after which a sweeper ram is used over any returns for a further two cycles.
Breeding rams used this year include Mullan Chancellor, progeny from which Mr Murray says he has been particularly impressed with so far. Chancellor was bought for 9,000gns from the Scottish national Texel sale at Lanark last year, in a three-way split with other breeders.
“We have used AI on and off since we started the flock,” he says. "It means we can use the best tups, often sharing with others, and also means lambing can be tightened up. Last year, there were 120 ewes due on one day, so I will usually get help in around then but apart from that and contractors for clipping and silaging, it is mainly just myself managing the sheep for most of the year.”
Although flushing and embryo transfer has been used in the past, Mr Murray decided to give that up this year.
“I felt I was not getting enough numbers of embryos to justify the process,” he says. “Especially with not selling many females. Ewe numbers have built up now to a point I am happy with for now, so there is not as greater need to. My top four shearling tups last year were all naturally born.”
Lambing starts close to February 24, indoors where ewes and lambs are kept for about two to three weeks post lambing, while grass growth gets going and to avoid excessive poaching with the farm’s ground being quite wet. Lambs are offered creep for the first four weeks of life, before being turned out onto grass alone.
Everything is performance recorded at birth, with figures including date of birth and birth weight noted alongside lambing ease, maternal ability or any health issues like mastitis for every ewe.
“I do cull quite hard for any problems and will be strict with it,” Mr Murray says. “I do not want to be mollycoddling individuals.”
An eight-week and 20-week weight is then recorded for the lambs, as well as ultrasound scanning for back fat and muscle depth.
This has shown an average daily liveweight gain for this year’s lamb crop to date as 350g, achieved with lambs receiving creep for the first four weeks of life. Topping the scales at the 20-week weigh at 61kg was a Mullan Chancellor ram lamb, which achieved a daily liveweight gain of 430g from birth.
“I have performance recorded for about 17 years and I do believe there is a value in gathering figures and data,” Mr Murray says. “They are a good marketing aid, but I still believe there is work to promote the merits.”
Elsewhere and Mr Murray is looking generally to improving the farm’s grassland performance, having soil sampled the whole farm this year which highlighted a potash and lime deficiency across much of the ground.
He is now looking to more regular reseeding, having recently incorporated redstart which he plans to use for over-wintering a group of sheep on for the first time this year and is also keen to look at different ways to manage grazing pastures with a view to improving grassland utilisation and performance.
He says: “I do incorporate feeding into my system, and for the outlets I am selling to I think it is necessary, to a degree. But I am looking to reduce my reliance on it to produce a more self-sufficient animal while also improving my bottom line.”