While to some extent Masham commercial ewes sired by Teeswater tups out of Dalesbred hill ewes have gone out of fashion, Cumbrian farmers Chris Gibson and Matthew Berry are enthusiastic about the mix as a low cost and easy to manage production system. Neil Ryder reports.
British farmers must work to make systems as efficient and cost effective as possible to allow home-produced lamb to compete with New Zealand imports, says Cumbrian farmer Chris Gibson, who runs 1,400 Dalesbred and Masham ewes and a pedigree Holstein herd with his stepson Matthew Berry.
The family team is made up of Mr Gibson, his wife Anne, his stepson Matthew and Matthew’s wife Louise, who farm at Low Audlands, Gatebeck, near Kendal, farming as Gibson and Berry. Mr Gibson has lived at the farm all his life and it has had links with his wife’s family since 1861.
The farm covers 455 hectares (1,100 acres), of which 182ha (450 acres) are owned and the rest rented, and runs from about 244 metres (800ft) above sea level at the farmstead to 305m (1,000ft) at the top.
Apart from 28ha (70 acres) of wheat grown for home feeding to the dairy herd, all the farm is medium- and long-term grass, including 101ha (250 acres) of rough grazing.
The rough top land forms part of a wind farm and is regarded as having near ideal wind conditions for energy production. Construction of the wind farm has meant a good road network enabling easy access to the top land.
Mr Gibson readily admits the rental income from the wind farm operator is a welcome addition to the farm income.
Management of the dairy and sheep enterprises is closely integrated so the two are complementary to each other rather than competing for grass and resources.
Dairying is based on the Audbrook Holstein herd, which totals 170 milkers plus followers and averages about 9,000 litres at 4 per cent fat and 3.25 per cent protein. Calving is all year round with milk sold to Dalefarm, a local dairy products company.
Last year, high yielders were housed for a short period during summer because of bad weather conditions and this was so successful the milkers are now housed all year round with only dry cows and youngstock going out to grass.
This overcomes the problem of moving stock to and fro across the road which divides the farm with about 50/50 land and buildings either side. While quiet for much of the day, it is a key commuter route for people working in North Kendal. It also means 121ha (300 acres) of grass is taken for silage in mostly two cuts and release land for sheep.
A key development was three years ago when the family was able to take over an adjoining 142ha (350-acre) farm which, together with upgrading of cattle housing, enabled the milking herd to grow from 80 to 170 and the sheep flock from about 1,000 to 1,400 ewes.
The farm runs a stratified sheep system with 400 Dalesbred ewes, of which 140 are bred pure to provide flock replacements and the rest put to the Teeswater. The farm also has 1,000 Masham ewes which are put to Charollais tups for prime lamb production and 20 pure Teeswater ewes to breed replacement Teeswater tups.
Mr Gibson says: “In the past, both Wensleydale and Teeswater tups were used on Dalesbred and Swaledales, with the Teeswater gradually becoming more popular as it bred Masham lambs with black and white faces, while Wensleydale bred lambs with brown faces.
“We have one of the oldest established Dalesbred flocks and believe strongly the Teeswater remains a first class cross on the Dalesbred and the resulting Masham commercial ewe suits our system and this farm.
“We keep all gimmer lambs ourselves, pure Dalesbreds as replacements and Masham lambs as replacements for the Masham flock.
“Dalesbreds graze the 250 acres of top land around the wind farm which is all subject to habitat management schemes, so we are restricted to numbers we can keep up there. We have had to cut horned sheep numbers down to cope with this, but the schemes pay quite well.
“We have always bred Dalesbreds. They do well here and Mashams cope well with our exposed situation. We have a wind problem here, which is why we have wind turbines at the top of the farm.
“Wind farm developers tell us it is one of the best sites they have found in England. Wind speed is about 7.2m per second and operators normally say anything more than 6m per second is viable.”
Mr Berry says: “The Dalesbred has a clean fleece giving protection against the winds.
“It has a better carcase than the Swaledale with more depth of body. We also find the Charollais works well as a terminal meat sire on the Masham.
“Lambing starts with the Mashams when clocks change at the end of March, then depending how the Mashams have tupped, the Dalesbreds follow around April 15. If the Mashams get tupped quick, the Dalesbreds are tupped earlier. It is just to make things easier for ourselves.
Unless there are any problems, everything lambs outside.”
Mr Berry says ewes are not pregnancy scanned and sheep are assessed on condition. Scanning is seen as something they do not need to do. Ewes are not flushed in autumn as they would rather have singles than triplets.
No additional feed is given to ewes returning to the tup. When lambing 50-60 ewes per day, triplets are seen as a nuisance, although there remain plenty of triplet births.
He says the Masham flock has a lambing percentage of about 185 based on ewes tupped and Dalesbreds will be about 165 per cent over ewes tupped. Some fostering may take place as soon as lambs are dropped, but this is never forced on a ewe.
They see one of the keys to sheep management being feeding in the run up to tupping, as a ewe’s condition at that stage governs the numbers of lambs born.
Mr Berry says: “It is a case of keeping everything simple for lambing time. Ewes are able to rear lambs themselves and do not need any extra work to help them. We can simply lamb them and leave them. It means they hold condition and are able to handle winters better than if they have reared three lambs. The whole thing is geared to ease of management including less labour.”
Mr Gibson says: “There is me and Matthew, plus a lad who comes full-time for lambing and, this year, we had a vet student for a fortnight. There are also 170 cows to milk and a lot of youngstock to look after. It is a hell of a busy time, so we have to make it as easy and as simple as possible. If we can get the ewe to do most of it, say 95 per cent of it, all the better.”
Both believe strongly their sheep are managed with as little interference and handling as possible, with routine gathering only about four times a year.
Part of the strategy is to wean lambs fairly early to give ewes a chance to get back into condition before tupping.
Mr Berry says: “Soils are deficient in copper here and Dalesbreds seem to handle this very well, whereas other breeds, especially continentals and continental cross sheep, would have problems.
We find using a Charollais on a Masham to produce a finishing lamb seems to work well and presents no problems.”
Lambs are sold fat from mid-July and fortnightly onwards until late March. All are sold fat, going deadweight to Seven Sisters and giving 19-20kg carcases at mainly R and U grades. Mr Berry says selling deadweight means they have a good idea of prices they will receive and there are real time savings in taking lambs to a collection centre compared to selling through auction.
Overall, they both believe the future in sheep and dairy has to be increased efficiency and reduced costs to compete with foreign competition, but their current balance between sheep and dairy works well and they see no reason to change.