Courtesy of Matt Drummond, Cassington flock
Producing low maintenance, cost efficient sheep, whilst maintaining the best breed characteristics is the aim of the game at Cassington.
There have been a number of changes in farming policy at Cassington over the past few years. Until three years ago, the Drummonds ran a dairy herd, milking 120 performance recorded Ayrshire cows, producing specialist ultra high quality milk. “It was a combination of factors that made us quit,” explained Matt Drummond, whose family have farmed in the parish, within a mile radius, for over 250 years. “Economies of scale, the need to update facilities and our contract to produce milk for chocolate production with Nestle came to an end we were too small and remote to attract anyone else and to increase cow numbers meant a huge investment.” The four farms the Drummonds own were once part of Culzean Estate. “It was badly planned as they put the steadings in the corner of each farm with cows having to travel long distances to graze” commented Matt, who lives at one of the other farms Fardenwilliam, with his wife Elaine and son James (7) while his mother stays at Cassington.
Cassington is now predominately a lowland semi intensive sheep farm with also 40 Limosan x Ayrshire suckler cows. On the sheep side they have 400 Cheviot and 100 Scotish Blackface ewes which are tupped with performance recorded Bluefaced Leicester rams for the production of Mule ewe lambs, they also have 300 Scotch Mule ewes which are tupped with performance recorded Texel rams to produce prime lambs for high end food retailer Marks & Spencer’s. Mule ewe lambs are also bought in to top up their home bred number to 500 and most of these 500 are sold as yearling ewes the next year. They also have there flock of around 50 performance recorded Bluefaced Leicester.
Bluefaced Leicesters have been bred at Cassington for nearly 70 years. “Matt’s grandfather went to Lazonby just after the war and bought a tup – he liked the lambs so bought two the following year. Matt has obviously inherited his grandfather’s passion for the breed and has been recording for the last 5 years. “Our policy has always been that, if someone wanted to buy a female, we would sell them one, Matt’s father was always of the opinion you should cut a stick when you see it, you just don’t know what’s round the corner. The numbers of ewes in the flock became less as they probably sold too many but over the last 3 year they have embarked in an embryo Transfer program which has enabled them to retain enough females for their own flock while still selling others. Females have been exported all over Europe and even as far as Dubai.
Farming in the UK is highly subsidised, the subsidies are based on the historical stocking levels that an individual farm had 20 years ago. Matt commented “Many of my neighbouring farmers get annual payment of in excess of £100,000 per year in subsidy payments, where’s 20 years ago we had dairy cows that don’t get subsidised and a few sheep. This has resulted in me getting more or less no payment while others with similar farms receive £2,000 a week in financial help from the EU”. This great financial disadvantage has been enormously challenging for Matt and his family but they have a very positive outlook on this, Matt explained “the days of EU subsides are numbered and having to farm without them we are getting a head start in developing new farming techniques and increasing efficiency, when the rest of the industry has to wake up to living in a word without support our genetics and farming methods will be way ahead.
Two years ago Matt joined forces with another four like-minded Bluefaced Leicester breeders to form a marketing group – Progressive Breeders. Fellow Scot, S Crozier of the Watersyke Flock and three Welsh breeders – M Roberts, Myfrian, E Owen, Cernyw and A Jones, Craig Yr Orsedd make up the quintet. “The objectives of the group are to promote our performance recorded Blues whilst highlighting the benefits of using Mules sired by high index BFL rams. We all have the common goal of trying to produce high index sheep that are still pleasing to the eye,” shared Matt.
“‘High index sheep that are still pleasing to the eye,’ is a statement that does not sit very well with the either the performance recording enthusiasts or sceptics. It could imply that we are not fully committed to the power of the figures, but nothing could be further from the truth. We are realists and recognise that maintaining a strong commercial element is attractive to other breeders. There is little point in us breeding high index sheep that no other breeders want to buy. The world we live in isn’t ready to buy sheep on figures alone.”
The obvious traits selected by the group are maternal ability, to produce efficient Mules, and growth rate. This ensures that the wether Mule lambs and prime lambs can be finished efficiently. “Another trait, which our group believes to be very important, but is not so obvious, is the ability to lay down fat. The tups must have the ability to store enough fat to go out and do their job at tupping time, without us having to chase after them with a feeding bag. We feel that a tup should be able to cover well over 100 ewes in challenging weather conditions without feed and still come back in from tupping in fair condition. The tups that we are breeding today can easily manage this. “The ability to lay down fat is also important in the Mule ewe, this helps her get over any challenges she may face, allowing her to keep feeding her lambs and maintain immunity to many health issues.”
The recording criteria seems to be reaping rewards for the members of the group as in the last three years, the five flocks have collectively notched up Championships at both of the Bluefaced Leicester Association progeny shows in the UK, Breed Champion at the Royal Welsh and Royal Highland Shows, Male and Female Champion at the Breed Association sale at Carlisle and Champion and top price at Builth Wells National Sheep Association Sale. “Last year Elfyn Owen’s flock had an exceptional year, achieving supreme champion at thee BFL sales – Carlisle, Builth Wells and Welshpool.
Two challenges that Matt and the other group members have found in their quest to improve their flocks are conflicting ones. “We all need to share each others genetics to increase linkage within our group of flocks to consolidate the reliability of our figures, but at the same time we need to keep introducing new blood to reduce the threat of inbreeding. This has become even more difficult as some of the bloodlines bred by Progressive Breeder have been used extensively in the breed, especially in recorded flocks, making it difficult to find fresh blood. “Using AI allows us to test tups in all of our flocks and provides accurate performance figures quickly, even if we are using tups that are unrecorded. Once a tup, with the required traits is found – he can be used in flushing programs with selected ewes.”
On the topic of frozen semen, Matt feels that banked semen is much more valuable than an insurance payout. “Semen can also be stored for future use down the line – but it does not always work as fashions change. With others the recorded figures relative to today’s rams can be much lower due to advances in certain traits. However Progressive Breeders have had great success with some older semen in the past year or so, as certain semen has good genetic linkage with current bloodlines and therefore maintains its relative performance. Frozen semen also gives us another method to sell our genetics; selling semen becomes a larger part of our business every year.”
“We realise that in order for us to move forward we will have to work in partnership with other like-minded breeders and we are always looking at ways to achieve this. To this end we have been joined by eleven other recorded Bluefaced Leicester breeders, our “Progressive Breeders Partners”. Jointly we are all working together to supply the ever increasing demand for recorded Bluefaced Leicesters to produce profitable and efficient Mules. The most important thing for us is to stay mainstream; we are producing low maintenance, cost efficient sheep, whilst maintaining the best breed characteristics. We are constantly keeping an eye on what the market wants and supplying a highly profitable and efficient version of that!
At Cassington, Matt has formed a second flock of Bluefaced Leicesters, the “Cassington X” flock of crossing type Bluefaced Leicesters to supply costumers that prefer this type. The idea is to have no more than six ewes; the foundation ewes have been bought on correctness and crossing ability (the ability to produce Mules with dark coloured faces). He will then AI with the very best proven crossing genetics in the breed and flush the best two ewe each year, while each year pre tupping selecting the best 6 ewes in the flock and selling the surplus. It is hoped by putting the best genetics in at the top and taking ewes out the flock for the slightest fault at the bottom, rapid progress will be made.