Farm Ireland

Friday 19 January 2018

northern star won't have wool pulled over eyes

One of North's largest flock owners is breeding wool-shedding sheep because he believes savings already outweigh wool sales

As the shearing season gets into gear, one of Northern Ireland's largest flock owners is taking it easy because he's focusing on breeding a sheep that never needs to be shorn.

He's got 2,800 ewes and another 800 replacements but Campbell Tweed is taking time out at a conference in Cork, nearly 500km from his farm at Carncastle, 10km north of Larne on Northern Ireland's northeast coast.

While sheep farmers are normally at full throttle at this time of year, the former Ulster Farmers' Union president is reaping the benefits of a breeding programme focused on producing low-maintenance, easy-care sheep.

"Any sheep that we have to assist during lambing is slaughtered that year," states Mr Tweed. "We've only have about 16 pens to look after problem cases during lambing, so the vast majority look after themselves.

"There's no fostering with triplets because our sheep can rear three lambs. All of them are lambed outdoors at 850ft from the beginning of April and no creep is used.

"A lot of the farm never sees nitrogen with just about 35 units of nitrogen on the lowland portion before lambing starts. My focus is on bringing more clover into the system now. But the flock is still rotationally grazed in bunches of 150-1400 moving around three to five blocks each. We only feed silage and maybe a bit of meal from January to March.


Also Read

"The whole of the lambing season was completed with 3.5 labour units [including Mr Tweed] that started at 8am each morning and finished at 6pm each evening. The vast majority of the work was simply recording."

Those recording figures are impressive. Mr Tweed claims less than 1pc lambing difficulty across the flock, less than 5pc barren and 1.35 lambs sold per ewe in 2011. "That figure was 10pc lower than the scan but I feel we've scope to get it up to 1.5 or even 1.6," he said.

However, the ultimate trump card of the Antrim farmer's easy-care breed may well be the fact that they don't require shearing. While counter-intuitive to most sheep farmers, Mr Tweed took the decision to breed for a wool-shedding type of ewe more than 10 years ago after looking at different systems all over the world.

"We decided that if we were serious about producing low-cost lamb we needed to cut out the cost of dealing with wool," stated Mr Tweed.

"Last year was the first year in quite some time that the cost of shearing was actually exceeded by the price returned by the market place. But I reckon that is only half of the cost of having wool on sheep. I estimate that it costs at least €1.60/ewe for shearing, along with another €1.25 in labour every time you go to bring them in.

"This will be 2-3 times a year for shearing and dipping. Then add in the cost of the chemicals and treatments and losses due to blow-strike and sheep going on their backs just before shearing and I firmly believe that you won't have much change out of €7.50/ewe for dealing with wool-related issues."

For this reason, Mr Tweed is comfortable about the fact that he is passing up on up to €7,500 a year in wool sales. "That's in the good times. I remember our worst year when we only sold €2,750 of wool from the flock."

So where does all the wool go? "I don't honestly know," grins Mr Tweed. "It can look a bit messy for about three weeks but after that it just seems to disappear. I suppose a lot of it is used by birds for nest building and the rest just goes into the ground."

Mr Tweed estimates that about 80pc of his flock are now wool-shedding types, and expects the entire lot to be uniform within a few years.

"We would have traditionally had Scotch Blackface crossed with Colbred, which in turn was a four-way cross between the Dorset Horn, Border Leicester, Clun and East Friesland," he said. "So we've been crossing these with wool-shedding breeds from Wales, principally Wiltshire Horn and South Welsh Mountain crossbreds."

But what sacrifices has Mr Tweed made on conformation and growth rates to breed these wool-shedding qualities into his flock?


"They are a longer necked animal that are narrower in the head and shoulder but 97pc of my lambs last year made the Sainsbury's spec with Dunbia. That equates to upper O and R. That's enough to secure me the best price out there and get my transport covered too."

In fact, Mr Tweed believes that many sheep farmers put too much emphasis on carcase conformation.

"You only ever need a certain amount of conformation. I think it's more important to concentrate on the maternal traits. That's the same approach that the New Zealanders take, where their breeding index is 75pc based on maternal traits.

"At the end of the day, its more about the weight of lamb that you can profitably produce per ewe.

"There simply isn't enough of a premium out there in the industry for conformation and it's unlikely to ever be any different. They just want saleable meat of a suitable portion size."

While Mr Tweed hasn't sold much of his stock south of the border due to scrapie restrictions, he is finding a ready market for his culls and rams in the North.

"We sold 800 ewes last year for an average of €110/hd and rams for €500-600," he said.

But why isn't there more demand for wool-shedding breeds?

"This is quite possibly the most conservative sector in the entire farming industry.

"Before lamb prices lifted, there were a good few more farmers being forced into looking at switching to an easy-care breed. But I think interest is growing."

Indo Farming