THE Dorset sheep’s ability to lamb out of season has given full-time solicitor Amy McConnell the flexibility to run her own pedigree flock, which perfectly complements the family dairy farm.
Amy’s parents Brian and Jayne farm 350, owned and rented, all-grass acres at Beechmount, Templepatrick in County Antrim, with son Robert, who works as a vet, and daughter Caroline, a primary school teacher, running a 220-cow pedigree Ayrshire and Holstein Friesian dairy herd.
Amy qualified as a solicitor eight years ago after graduating in law from Queen’s University, Belfast, followed by two years’ postgraduate study and employment.
However, the pedigree Poll Dorset Beechmount flock goes back to 2004 when Amy’s parents bought her as a 15th birthday present two ewe lambs from Thomas Wright’s Ballytaggart flock, one ewe lamb from Mr and Mrs Baird’s Glenn Flock and a ram from R & A Moore’s Slemish flock at the Northern Ireland Dorset Sheep Breeders’ Club premier sale.
“We ran commercial sheep on the farm at that time and I enjoyed working with the sheep while Robert and Caroline’s interest was with the dairy herd,” said Amy.
“I got hooked on the Dorsets early on as a ram I bred was placed third in its class and went on to take the top price at my first sale – it was great to see your own breeding doing so well and that spurred me on to progress the flock,” she added.
While sheep had always played an integral role in the dairy farm’s grassland management, which Brian is passionate about, the September-lambing Poll Dorset flock is an even better complement.
The running of the farm is very much a family affair despite Amy, Robert and Caroline having full-time jobs off the farm.
The milking portion of the herd is housed year-round and milked through three Fullwood Merlin robots. The farm also carries 300 head of young stock which, along with the dry cows, are outside during the summer months.
“The Dorsets, with their ability to lamb out of season, work perfectly on a dairy farm,” said Amy. “The dairy herd calves all year round and when I lamb the Dorsets in September when the cattle start to go back inside the Dorsets get the free run of the flush of grass. The ewes do very well at lambing time,” she added.
Lambs are sold off their mothers in January through Ballymena Livestock Market and this year 23kg lambs were among the top prices at £120 a head. All the September born lambs are off the farm by the end of January.
“The breed characteristics have very much moved on from when I got my first Dorsets,” said Amy. “The modern Dorset is a big, strong ewe with great maternal attributes. It’s a ewe that you can put any sire onto.
“My aim has been to breed a strong flock of ewes retaining the breed characteristics and then choosing the ram accordingly. I think we take it for granted how good these ewes are for their mothering ability and the quality of their lambs.”
Amy has found the September lambing at Beechmount has fitted in well with her work as a solicitor – and the farming operation.
Amy has specialised in commercial property law which takes her out onto farms and estates as well as commercial development sites, and December tends to be a busy time of year all round in solicitors’ offices with work to attend to at the year end.
September works well for Amy as most of her colleagues have had their holidays and the farm is perfect for the newborn lambs and their dams.
“It’s a lovely time of year to lamb with the ground conditions and the grass growth so I take my week’s annual ‘lambing leave’ and I can then plan my other holidays for the rest of the year. We AI so the lambing can be as tight as possible.
“It has been amusing when I’ve applied for jobs and at interviews there is always comment on the fact that I have my own sheep! I find tending to the sheep is a great head-clearer after a busy day in the office.”
This year, after enjoying her 10 years as a solicitor, Amy has taken a year out and has resumed her studies at Queen’s University through the CAFRE (College Of Agriculture Food and Rural Enterprise) and is furthering her experience in agribusiness with a masters degree in business for agri-food and rural enterprise.
With more time at home she decided to lamb the ewe lambs for the first time from late December.
All ewes have been AI’d for the past nine years by the sheep vet Paddy Grant using fresh and frozen semen to ensure a tight lambing period.
This year the September lambing ewes scanned at 185 per cent. This year embryo lambs have been born to enhance flock genetics.
The work is carried out occas-ionally using fresh or frozen embryos from “special” ewes.
They are AI’d and then run with the ram for two cycles. Any ewes which aren’t scanned in lamb and Amy wants to keep because of bloodlines are moved to the later lambing batch.
This year the lambs off the younger ewes will be weaned at the end of February so that they can be AI’d with the main flock in April and they will produce two sets of lambs in a year.
Ram lambs are weaned at 90 days and ewe lambs are kept on their mothers longer to ensure they get as much milk and take condition off the ewe with the first batch being weaned by mid-January.
With the pressure on to spread slurry at Beechmount from early February, all the October-November born lambs are off the farm from the middle to the end of February.
The flock runs to 40 females and currently all the ewes are home-bred. As well as bringing in new bloodlines with flock sires, Amy likes to buy in a female now and again.
“I am very selective because I have spent a long time getting the flock to a consistent standard and I know the history and all the family bloodlines,” she said.
One of the biggest influences at Beechmount was in the early days. A family friend, George Robson, was judging at the Worcester sale in 2006 and Amy’s parents asked him to buy a ewe for Amy as a birthday present.
He bought Huish H193 from David Rossiter’s Kingsbridge, Devon-based
flock and Helen, as she got named, was successful as a show ewe, winning her class at Balmoral Show and reserve champion locally at Antrim, as well as a top breeding ewe bringing milk, size and power to the flock.
She was flushed a couple of times and she produced Beechmount Lenny and he was a big influence across the flock.
Other stock sires which have left their mark on Beechmount breeding have been Downkillybegs Ted and Downkillybegs Zippit bred by William and Karen Carson at Ballymena and for the past three years Kilvaddy Bolt, bred by Allister and Pamela McNeill at Toomebridge. Hilltop Xbox bred by Richard Currie, Ballymena, has been used alongside Bolt and Zippit this season.
Two ewe lambs by Downkillybegs Zippit topped the Northern Ireland Dorset Club’s premier sale in July 2020 selling for 1500gns and another ewe lamb 1400gns.
At last year’s July premier sale in Ballymena Mart Beechmount D569 got the second top price for a female at 1700gns, one of the highest prices for Dorset females in sales in Northern Ireland.
Beechmount bloodlines have been successful in the show ring. At the last Ballymoney Show to be held pre-Covid in a class of 20 ewe lambs, the first three were of Beechmount breeding, two of which were Amy’s.
“It’s good to see other people doing well with your breeding. I am pretty ruthless in what I select to keep for breeding. I get the rest of the family to confirm my decision just in case I’m being too hard,” said Amy.
In 2020, Beechmount was reserve champion flock and first in the medium flock section of the club’s annual competition as well as being placed first overall with ewe lambs. Kilvaddy Bolt was placed second in the stock ram section.
“There are a lot of ewe lambs this year and they have done very well. Some will stay as flock replacements but I am looking forward to supporting the club sales in Northern Ireland,” added Amy.
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