Producing top quality shearling rams which are in demand from both pedigree and commercial producers has made the Hartwright family, Jim and his daughter, Nicola, the first point of call for many farmers at the autumn tup sales. Jonathan Long reports.
With more than 200 shearling rams to sell each year, alongside a select offering of ram lambs at several pedigree Texel sales, Jim Hartwright and his daughter, Nicola, certainly have their work cut out.
But, insists Mr Hartwright, the system they run is simple and effective because they focus on producing tups they would want to buy themselves.
He says: “For us it is a matter of being clear about what we are breeding as most of the progeny of the tups we produce end up as prime lambs.
“That means that for us it is all about the meat. We have to produce rams which commercial farmers can use to breed the best prime lambs possible. That guarantees us repeat customers and in the long-term a sustainable business.”
The Hartwrights turn out both pedigree Texel and Suffolk tups, although are better known for the Texels. It is Mr Hartwright’s background as an agent for leading processors which drives the breeding philosophy in the flocks which are based at Stanford Bishop, Herefordshire.
He says: “We have to breed rams that our customers are looking for and that means upstanding sheep with good tops and hindquarters and a sharp outlook. Selling shearling tups is the core of our business including more than 100 sold in one day at the main NSA Ram Sale, Builth Wells.
“This year’s consignment includes 60 Texel shearling rams and 40 Suffolk shearlings alongside eight Texel ram lambs. Sales at Hereford market on a regular basis are also an important part of our business, with some regular buyers at home too.
“It is no secret this sale is our harvest day and having our rams on top form for Builth is critical to the success of the flocks. The last five years have seen us progress more in the pedigree sales too, but that is a bonus for us, we have never set out to produce breeders tups. It is something which has happened without any real push from us and clearly reflects the type of Texel we are producing.”
The family’s Suffolk flock is no longer registered due to the type of sheep buyers require. Having been founded as a registered flock some 40 years ago, the focus of this flock is entirely commercial and the aim is to produce upright sheep with good fleshing and the ability to produce smart Suffolk cross ewe lambs and quality prime lambs.
Ms Hartwright says: “With a large number of Suffolk tups to sell we have to be well aware of what our regular commercial buyers require. And while the breed is currently less favourable for breeding prime lambs, using well-bred Suffolk tups still has a lot to offer.
“We farm the ewes pretty hard, but have to mindful of the quality of the grass they are on and the heavier soils we farm, so as many ewes as possible tend to be housed early in the New Year. Although not starting lambing until the end of February we are considering lambing some ewes later to spread the workload and target lambing more in line with grass growth.
“Because we are tight on shed space we have to turn ewes and lambs out fairly quickly after lambing and that means we have to have enough grass to turn them out on to comfortably. Getting the ewes off the grass earlier in the winter helps give the ground a break before we turn them out again.”
When it comes to feeding all lambs are initially creep fed, with only those Texel lambs destined for sale as lambs fed after weaning in early July.
Ms Hartwright says: “The rest are left to grow out naturally through until late autumn when we introduce a little feed again to keep them growing on through the winter. Ewe lambs are not fed at all once they have been weaned and are left to grow naturally through until tupping the following year.
“The level of repeat customers we have is testament to the performance of our rams and we regularly have new customers coming to buy rams based on the quality of the lambs they have seen in local markets sired by our rams.
“The most pleasing comments from our regular customers are how they are able to draw large batches of lambs of consistent quality.”
The Hartwrights are better known for their Texel tups.
Suffolk shearling tups.
On the breeding front both the Suffolk and Texel flocks have been founded on relatively humble beginnings, with few female additions over the years. The father and daughter team are certain the key is the successful selection of stock sires and the time taken to find the right rams for their flocks.
Mr Hartwright says: “Tup selection has been the paramount for us in both breeds and we aim to breed a similar type in both. Rams must have a good top, be sharp and alert and have a depth and length of loin. It is flesh which weighs and pays.”
Some may say it is rare to find tups to breed both females and males, but the Hartwrights say for them it has been possible provided you seek out the right lines.
Mr Hartwright says: “It may have been luck, but most of the rams we have used over the years have bred both quality rams and also left a legacy of great ewes too.
“We have never had to resort to embryo transfer to produce the numbers of sheep we do, relying on a solid, large female base to produce the goods year in, year out.
“That is not to say there is anything wrong with ET, but we have never felt the need for it in our flocks, despite starting the Texel flock some 20 years ago with just two ewes and it now numbering more than 240.
While breeding strong shearling tups for commercial buyers is the backbone of the business it is the success of Whitehart Texels in recent years which has drawn the attention of breeders.
Mr Hartwright says: “We first took a handful of ram lambs and shearlings to the English Premier Sale at Worcester in 2011 and did well, selling Whitehart Spot On, a Humeston River Dance son for 3,000gns to the Quick family for the Loosebeare flock.
“Then in 2012 we sold Whitehart Top Gear, a Cherryvale Shergar son, for 2,600gns to Russell Watkins for the Millend flock and the Quick family came back and bought Whitehart Tailor Made for 2,300gns.
More recently, 2016 saw the Texel flock sell to a top of 4,400gns at the main NSA Sale, Builth Wells, with this son of Langside the Gaffer selling to Procters Farm, Lancashire. The flock also lead the shearling ram prices at the national Texel sales, selling a Langside the Gaffer son for 3,500gns at the English National and a Cherryvale Shergar son for 3,000gns at the Welsh National.
Ms Hartwright says: “These pedigree sales are really just a bonus to the main business, with the overall average far more important for us and a better reflection on the quality of the sheep we are producing.”
While selling ram lambs is not the main focus, the Hartwrights do focus on a select group of Texel lambs for the major sales.
Ms Hartwright says: “We pull off a small bunch early in the year for the English and Welsh Premier Sales as well as the main NSA Sale at Builth Wells in September.
“It is just a case of picking out any exceptional lambs with that extra bit of sparkle needed to catch breeders’ attention at these sales.
“One thing we are confident off is that our sheep will go away from here and continue to improve. I would far rather that than have sheep which melt or stand still when they are sold.”
Central to the progress of the flock has been the belief that if something is not right or is not working you change it, says Mr Hartwright.
“We are rigorous when it comes to culling both ewes and rams and do not keep anything just for the sake of it. The benefit in buying ram lambs is that if they do not work we can always turn them over as shearlings. It does not happen very often, but there is no point sticking with something which is not working.
“On the female front we always have more than enough shearling ewes coming through, so can cull hard to keep the flock young and productive.
“That said we are now selling a few Texel shearling ewes, including a recent production sale at Worcester which saw us sell to a top of 1,800gns.”
With no showing done the flocks’ success is very much about selling the right sort of sheep to the right buyers, he adds. “The best promotion for both the flocks is to have pens full of decent prime lambs in live markets.
“Farmers talk and when something works for them they are not shy in telling others about it. Importantly when farmers in markets see lambs they like the look of they will soon ask where the tups came from, that is the best advertising we can get.”