Beltex and commercial sheep breeders Ross and Kirsty Williams, from Aberdeenshire, have built a reputation across the UK for producing quality breeding stock for both pedigree and commercial markets. Katrina Macarthur reports.
Ross and Kirsty Williams became start-up farmers in April 2013 and are now in their seventh year as tenants of The Forestry Commission at Upper Tullochbeg, Huntly, which is farmed on a 10-year lease.
As well as running profitable sheep and beef enterprises, the couple also have full-time jobs away from the 45-hectare (110-acre) unit, with Mr Williams a ruminant commercial manager for Norvite, and Mrs Williams a beef and sheep consultant with SAC Consulting.
They also have two young daughters, Jess, five; and Beth, two; who are already showing a keen interest in the farm.
Despite dabbling in more than one pedigree sheep breed over the years, the Beltex is undoubtedly the backbone of the duo’s business, producing no fewer than 70 pedigree and cross shearling tups a year for selling at premier sales and local marts, as well as using it as a terminal sire at home.
Mr Williams, who grew up in Somerset and established the Blackjack flock at just 12 years old, says: “The Beltex has the ability to produce a good quality carcase which is the correct type demanded in the marketplace.
“Beltex and Beltex cross lambs always attract a premium in the live ring, so we feel if the lamb price does take a dramatic drop, producers will realise how important the breed is for its £10/£15 premium.”
While the 60-ewe Beltex flock is made up of mainly home-bred females, the first Beltex Mr Williams bought was a female from Jock McMillan of the Clary flock, Newton Stewart.
In more recent years the couple bought a half share in a 2,500gns gimmer from Bruce Mair’s Aviemore flock, Turriff, which is shared with Jimmy Young, Muirton, and has bred well for the flock.
Mrs Williams dispersed her Balchurn Zwartbles flock in 2015 at Thainstone, where they sold to 1,000gns twice.
She says: “Biosecurity is extremely important, so we invest heavily in tups to avoid buying in females. We also flush about a dozen ewes each year, but we are careful in what we select.
“They must have good udders and feet, and be the breeding females that never cause a problem and rear their own lambs that go on to the pedigree market.
“Our aim is to breed shearlings for the commercial market, as the commercial buyers will always be there. The big prices are a bonus to what we do.”
The Blackjack flock is often at the top of the tree when selling shearlings at Carlisle and is consistently in the top 10 for flock averages.
In 2015, Mr and Mrs Williams achieved their best price to date of 16,000gns for Blackjack Well Hung, a son of Todhall Superstar, which was sold at the breed’s premier sale at Carlisle in August.
At the same sale in 2018, they received 15,000gns for Blackjack Casanova, which sold for the second top price of the day to Brian Hall, Ainstable Hall, Carlisle, and Neale and Janet McQuistin of the Airyolland flock, Newton Stewart.
It also stood second prize out of a class of 80 shearlings. Casonva’s sire, Padkin Sugar Daddy, was bought for 9,000gns in a three-way split with Jimmy Young and Mary Dunlop, Corstane, Biggar, and has bred some of the best females in the flock today including their top price gimmer to date, Automic Kitten, which sold for 3,200gns.
Other sons of Padkin Sugar Daddy have made 3,500gns twice to commercial breeders.
Another sire to make a stamp on the flock is the 13,000gns Langlands Bruiser, purchased in a five-way split at Carlisle in 2017.
It stood male champion at the Royal Highland Show in 2018 and is the sire of a number of quality gimmers which the duo have for sale this year.
Mr Williams says: “Over the years, we have continued to build up numbers, but now we are at the stage where we can sell around 30 females each year.
"We tend to put 10 shearlings to the first sale at Carlisle, along with eight gimmers, and this year we have a further 10 gimmers entered for the Beltex Beauties female sale at Carlisle.
“Females are also sold both at Lanark and privately, including ones which are in-lamb.”
Kelso Ram Sales has also become a great market for them with their shearlings usually averaging above the £1,000 bracket and in the top five for flock averages.
Lambing kicks off at the end of January with a batch of embryos to produce show lambs, but most are lambed in March for breeding shearlings.
The odd tup lamb has been sold over the years, including one which made 2,200gns.
“Our tup lambs are outwintered on forage crops and go onto Typhon the following July, which ensures they are looking their best on sale day,” Mr Williams says.
“We have repeat buyers reporting back that our shearlings are long lasting and still perform well after a few years.”
Each year, about 200 Suffolk cross Mule ewe lambs are bought privately for selling the following July/August as maedi visna (MV) accredited gimmers, while Ross and Kirsty keep 40 of those for using as recipients.
“We aim to keep our recipients young and fresh so they only have three years of embryos,” says Mr Williams.
“The Suffolk cross Mules are good mothers and do not really depreciate, they are easy lambing with a wide pelvic area and are very milky.
“Keeping them young, ensures they are fit and have a good supply of colostrum and milk.”
Mrs Williams adds: “We have found a market for selling MV accredited gimmers to pedigree flocks who use them as recipients. It allows for a quick turnover and generates cashflow away from the pedigree sales.”
For the past 10 years, home-bred Beltex tups have been put to pure Charollais ewes to produce ‘Kros’ shearling tups which are sold privately on-farm to repeat buyers.
They receive no hard feeding and are on turnips throughout the winter to ensure they are hardy and fit for commercial flocks. These tups are extremely active, as many of them are running with more than 100 ewes and last well on commercial farms.
Crossing-type Bluefaced Leicesters were introduced to the farm a few years ago with foundation females bought from Carry House and Allanfauld.
The flock now numbers 15 breeding females with the first three shearlings entered for this year’s Kelso Ram Sales.
Mr Williams says: “We wanted to introduce a maternal breed to the farm and had someone give us the challenge to produce shearlings to stand up to the local climate.
“Mules are a big part of the sheep industry and there are a lot of Mules bred in the North East so we can see a market.”
The remaining MV Suffolk crosses which are not used as recipients are tupped with home-bred crossing type Bluefaced Leicester tup lambs, ensuring they are ready to work as shearlings the following year.
Like most pedigree sheep producers, showing is a great advert for the Williams’ sheep business and they have enjoyed many successful summer show seasons in the North East and at the Royal Highland Show.
While they have picked up a number of breed championships over the years at local shows, as well as two inter-breed wins, they stood champion in both the Beltex and Zwartbles sections at the Highland Show in 2011.
Their Beltex champion that year was Loandhu Percy Pig, a stock tup which also worked successfully in the flock.
This year’s Blackjack shearlings for sale at Carlisle, Lanark and Kelso include sons of the 3,000gns Cothi Champ; 5,000gns Bailey Brook CR7 and the 13,000gns Langlands Bruiser.