SWALEDALES ~ HARNESSING AND ENHANCING PERFORMANCE
Lambert Coverdale goes to Richmond to meet Brian and Matthew Lawson
Swaledale breeders have featured predominantly in this issue, from an up and coming pure bred breeder who took several top awards in this region last year in the showring, to a more established breeder winning some of the very top carcase classes in the UK. So you might ask if there is anything left to add! Not daunted by this, my next visit took me to Richmond and the Lawson family - Brian, Rachel and their son Matthew.
Before moving on to discuss Swaledales, we recalled an in-depth discussion we had had on the merits of the Beltex a couple of years ago at the Great Yorkshire Show. This only becomes relevant when one learns of their concerns regarding the future of the Mule, and grandfather Edward's advice not to change or deplete their flock of Swaledale ewes. The decision instead was taken to change tup and put a Texel tup on some of the Swaledales in the early 1990s - with very successful results.
Around 70 per cent of their flock is kept pure yet currently 50 per cent of the remainder are now put to the Texel, the rest going to the Blue Faced Leicester, as they've not turned their backs on the Mule either.
Their original two tups came from John Earle as a result of seeing his sheep whilst their wethers were away at his farm on stubble turnips. A total of 200 of these first crosses are kept to breed from and the family are now looking to double that number, so confident are theyof this cross's future. Having concerns about becoming too pure and being keen to maintain the original hybrid vigour, the Texel cross ewes are put back on to a Beltex tup.The two original Beltex tups were bought from John Hull, a noted carcase producer in his own right.
Increasingly, butchers' lamb buyers seem keen to get their hands on these lambs especially after they've once tried them, even at premium prices whether buying direct or from the few samples Matthew has kept taking to Bentham, Leyburn, Hawes, or Kirby Stephen auctions. Even as we spoke, a quality butcher had already tried to purchase the whole of this year's lamb crop, unseen and unborn and at a premium price. At the moment, however, Matthew is keeping his options open, but this serves to prove that the very best quality is very much in demand - though for a family who take a particular pride in good stockmanship, perhaps they have Matthew's great grandfather to also thank, as he was in fact a butcher who went into farming so was aware of customer requirements, and even at that time was handling shoulders and tails to establish carcase finish, especially on the breeding stock they bought in.
The demand for their half-breds has been such that they have been unable to satisfy demand. The Beltex wether lambs have averaged £14 per lamb above the kilo weight putting them at almost £60 per head - and these only two crosses away from the pure Swaledale. This must be a tremendous focus for any pure breeder without taking anything away from what some are already doing.
Matthew told me that dispite all this one of their main sources of income is achieved by selling Swaledale draft ewes, and last year 340 ewes averaged £69.75 with the top 15 per cent going for further pure breeding. The remainder went to be used for crossing such as for Mule production. So again, it's so important to start with the right product. Despite what some might think, Matthew believes the ewes that produced their best Mules are also producing the best Texel crosses; however he was quite adamant that the few Mules they also run with the Texel crosses can't cope with the winter conditions the same and have to be split off and fed extra.
Matthew has also learned that the Beltex crosses are killing out at between 52 and 53 per cent, which is what is making them so attractive to the butchers when they are hung up, and the Texel crosses in turn are achieving 50 to 51 per cent.
The family also run about 100 suckler cows where Belgian Blue and Limousin bulls are crossed on to their original Angus cows - so their quality stock-breeding regime is part of everything they do.
It might have been more attractive to some to swap and change in line with the fashions and fortunes of farming but, having embarked upon the Texel cross, the Lawsons have stuck with it as it retains their Swaledale lines. With crosses capable of about 190 per cent lambing percentages, this is only marginally behind what top Mule flocks boast at 200 per cent. Also, because Texel crosses don't have to be sorted for colour or markings, more gimmer lambs qualify for further breeding.
Matthew was again quite adamant that it's not a matter of trying to change the Swaledale, but it's a case of harnessing and enhancing performance and making the most of what you've got.