THOMAS Wright, Ballymoney, is no stranger to Dorset sheep. He and his family have been running the pedigree Ballytaggart flock for 28 years now and so have developed a wealth of experience in the breed with genetics stretching far and wide across the UK.
Over the years the Ballytaggart flock has won a plethora of awards both in the show and sale rings in Northern Ireland and the mainland. To note a few, the flock has won supreme championship at Balmoral seven times, May Fair four times and, most recently, champion in the Northern Ireland flock competition, an accolade the flock has won multiple times, including at UK level.
Thomas runs 140 pedigree ewes alongside 50-60 Angus cattle, reared from drop calves. The two work in perfect unison for Thomas in terms of housing requirements and grassland management.
Ewes are put to the rams in April for two cycles with the aim of early September lambs. The naturally fertile nature of the breed means the large majority of the flock hold, giving a neat lambing period.
This year an excellent 120/140 of the ewes held for September lambing. The remainder of the ewes are put back to the ram in July, lambing in December, which gives Thomas the opportunity to try out new stock rams.
Lambing in September works remarkably well for the mixed enterprise as cattle are still out at grass, meaning all housing can be utilised by the sheep and in turn, once lambing is finished, can be used for the entire winter for cattle, reducing costs. Again, the two complement each other in terms of grassland management with a low demand for grass from dry ewes in spring/summer meaning the cattle can have priority.
The first of the lambs born in September will be finished as early as 12-13 weeks, provided they are not selected for breeding. This is impressive considering lambs are outwintered with limited concentrates fed. The ewe plays a huge role in making this possible due to their abundance of milk, versatility, hardiness and maternal ability, thus keeping mortality rates minimal.
This in turn results in high lambing percentages with both quantity and quality of lambs to sell with grades comparable to that of continentals.
Upon weaning, Thomas will select around 30 ram lambs to be kept for breeding every year. A strong focus is placed upon conformation, breed type and correctness of feet and mouths. Finding a market for so many rams proves an easy task with a strong reputation and, of course, more notably the constant increase in demand for Dorset rams as both a terminal and maternal sire.
Last year Thomas topped the annual May Fair with ram lamb Ballytaggart Boss Hogg selling for 3800gns with a pen average of 1200gns. Of course, a number of lambs also go to commercial breeders in which Thomas has noted a marked increase in buyers seeking rams to put to crossbred continentals for an easy fleshing, low input and high return lamb.
As well as ram lambs, the Ballytaggart flock sells up to 60 ewe lambs from home every year with the surplus going to Carlisle in late summer. There has been a notable surge in demand for females over the past five years, capitalised on by all breeders. Thomas explained that more and more people are utilising the Dorset’s ability to breed all year round, capable of producing three crops of lambs in two years. This unique trait can be carried across to half bred ewes and so this makes up the basis of many of his commercial customers with the aim of early lambs to hit the Easter market.
The Dorset breed is continuously growing with increasing membership and sale success bolstered by the perfect mix of maternal and terminal traits making it an attractive investment to any sheep enterprise!