Scotch Mules Make Their Mark
Above: Scotch Mules and their lambs at Broadshean, Maybole, Ayrshire
THE UK’S stratified sheep system maybe unique throughout Europe, but with so many native and continental breeds desperate to make their mark in the industry, selecting the best commercial female for an individual farming unit is far from easy. But, despite the vast number of pure and cross-breeds now available, few are able to match the productivity of the Scotch Mule.
That is the overwhelming viewpoint of Ian McFadzean, who over the years has experimented with most breeds of sheep both on the lowground rented farm just outside Turnberry and on his upland farming unit at Broadshean, Maybole, in Ayrshire.
“The Mule takes a bit of beating,” he said. “There is no such thing as easycare sheep, but the Mule is about as easycare as it gets. I was brought up with the understanding that part of being a good stockman is keeping animals alive and healthy, but to many, the word easycare is a sign of a lazy shepherd.
“The Mule nevertheless, is milky, prolific, easy managed and she’ll produce good to above average lambs when you put her to a good tup. I would tell anyone getting into sheep farming to go and buy some Mules because they’ll look after you as much as you look after them.”
Not surprisingly, most of Ian’s sheep enterprise at Broadshean, a 500-acre upland owned unit comprising 330 acres of grazing ground and 170 acres of rough hill land, revolves around these increasingly popular Bluefaced Leicester cross Blackie females.
Out of the 500 ewes, 300 are Scotch Mules crossed to the Texel, with the remainder made up of Texel cross Mules, a few Suffolk cross Mules, Bleu Du Maine cross Texels, and pure-bred Suffolk and Texel ewes to breed home-bred tups. All are, however, crossed to a Texel ram.
“In my opinion, the best fat lambs are the result of a Texel tup crossed over Bleu Du Maine cross Texel ewes, but the Bleu Du Maine is too soft for up here. The Suffolk cross Mule is a good milky female that produces good lambs that are that bit growthier and finish earlier, but I wouldn’t use the Suffolk as a terminal sire unless the tups had better ends. To me, there is too much feeding and not enough breeding in today’s Suffolks.”
Commenting on his choice of Scotch Mule and Texel cross Scotch Mule ewes he said: “A Scotch Mule is more productive and easier to keep. Properly managed, a Scotch Mule will easily produce scanning percentages of 200% and 180% at sale time whereas a Texel cross Mule will scan at 175%, giving 150-175% lambs to sell. Mules don’t coup as badly as Texel cross females either and their fleeces are better suited to the wetter climate here.”
Nevertheless, while he conceded that the three-quarter Texel lamb is worth on average £5 per head more than a 50% Texel cross out of a Mule and a Texel cross ewe can make on average £10 per head more as a draft female, the easier management and numbers game favour the Mule as a commercial female in the long run.
“Texel cross Mules are softer, have more maintenance requirements due to feet problems and they need that bit more feeding to rear twins. The three-quarter-bred Texel cross lambs are also that bit slower to get to their feet,” said Ian.
Most years, the Texel crosses lamb at the beginning of March, coming inside a couple of days before lambing is due to commence with the Mules starting at the end of the month, again to lamb inside. All are scanned at the end of January and fed accordingly, up to 1/2lb per head per life, per day.
In contrast to a growing number of commercial sheep producers, Ian doesn’t lamb any hoggs. Instead, he buys in all replacements as strong gimmers either privately or at Castle Douglas or Ayr markets. Notably, he doesn’t look to buy the darkest most expensive gimmers either.
“I would never look to lamb ewe hoggs again. Acres and staff are at a premium here so I can’t afford to let a female go away with one lamb, and there is no money in a ewe hogg rearing twins. We would never let a ewe away with three lambs either. Triplets are always split and doubled up either with single-bearing ewes or put on to an adopter,” Ian said, pointing out that he gets five crops of lambs out of all of his ewes.
Most years, the business is able to finish most of the lambs off grass, but with last year’s disasterous trade which witnessed top quality prime lambs dip as low as £25 per head following the foot-and-mouth outbreak in Surrey, Ian kept 100 Texel cross Mule ewe lambs to keep as replacement females. He also ended up finishing 300 head inside on an intensive lamb creep which at a cost of £10 per head, was well worth it when the resultant hoggs made £60-£70 each, sold February, March.
But with prime lamb prices falling on a daily basis, he could well be finishing a lot more through this winter too. “Sheep farmers not only deserve, they need to get at least 150p per kg live to survive, because if we don’t, the job’s ruined. We’ve been getting £40 per head for the last 20 years, it’s time something changed, especially when you consider we’re producing one of the most natural products available. A lamb finished purely off grass is as natural as a free-range egg, but what premium do we get for it? No other product has to take the fluctuations in price more than lamb, and there is not enough of a premium for the best lambs in the market.”
Instead, Ian urged sheep farmers to sell more through the live market. “The deadweight price is based on the average produced from the live market, therefore, I am firmly committed to selling everything live, including my best lambs.”
In previous years, the farm would buy in some of the best commercial stock Texel rams either at Kelso or Lanark– costing up to £1000 per head – but in a bid to reduce costs, Ian has recently purchased a few more Texel females privately from Jim Frame, Little Galla, to breed his own stock tups.
Similarly, he has also bought in a few pedigree Limousins carrying the black gene, to run alongside his 50-cow suckler herd based on Belgian Blue and Limousin cross bloodlines.
“The Belgian Blue cross female onto a Limousin bull produces the perfect end product. The calves are quiet, easy to work with and you can sell them anywhere,” concluded Ian – just like Texel crosses out of the Mule!
Article by Patsy Hunter, photo by Catherine Laurenson of The Scottish Farmer