By Debbie James

Placing emphasis on breeding rams to be profitable in a commercial sheep farming situation is proving a winning formula for a Welsh sheep farm.

Far from needing rams that win prizes at shows, most of Gary and Meinir Howells’ customers want an animal with a good body with plenty of length and muscle, with a proportional head that’s not too powerful.

Ninety-five per cent of the rams they supply from Shadog Farm, near Llandysul, are sold to commercial flocks.

“We see a lot of breeders going for rams with big powerful heads with fancy colours, but that’s not what the commercial farmer wants,’’ says Gary, who has been farming since he left school 25 years ago.

Many of their customers buy up to six rams a year.

“People are happy with them, because they turn them out and they do so well – somebody phoned us one year about three weeks after they bought the tup and said the tups looked better than when they bought them! It was nice to hear.”

Gary and Meinir don’t creep any of their ram lambs during their first year, allowing the animals to grow naturally on grass and forage.

Pushing ram lambs hard on concentrates and then expecting them to perform well in a grass-based system as yearlings is illogical, Gary suggests.

Growing them naturally helps the rumen to develop and he has reassuring reports from his customers that tups last for many years.

The rams need to fit management regimes which don’t demand large amounts of supplementary feed, Gary explains.

“The feedback we get is that they keep on improving, developing and growing into big strong sheep.’’

The MV accredited Ty Cam flock was established in the 1970s by his parents, John and Ann, when they bought a Texel ram from the UK’s first importation sale.

More than 40 years later and the baton has passed to Gary and Meinir.

The family have since increased pedigree Texel numbers to 350 ewes; they also run 35 pure Suffolks, 35 pure Charollais ewes which they cross with a Beltex to produce crossbred rams, 30 bluefaced Leicesters and 40 registered Balwens.

At 490 ewes, the scale of the flock does not lend itself for pampering of individual sheep.

“When you have that many ewes you can’t mollycoddle every one of them, they have got to be workers and able to look after themselves, to survive in pretty harsh conditions. They are all run very commercially,’’ says Meinir, who splits her time between the farm and her part-time role as a presenter on S4C’s Welsh language farming programme 'Ffermio'.

The rams are turned in with the ewes at the end of September, to lamb at the beginning of March.

Until 2017 all breeding had been natural, but after investing £5,800 in a ram, Roxburgh Winston, purchased at Kelso, synchronisation and artificial insemination was introduced and has since been used on around 140 ewes annually, to get the full benefit of this investment.

During the last two years, the family have used insemination to the full by purchasing rams jointly with other flocks.

“It is very difficult to find the type of tup we need these days, there is far too much emphasis put on breeding rams with massive flashy heads and not enough emphasis given by breeders to keep to the basics of the breed, which are length, straight top lines and carcass,” Gary explains.

“When we do come across a good-bodied powerful ram, everyone else is also after him so it makes sense to share the cost with someone else”.

One ram that has bred exceptionally well at Shadog is Blaencar Bandit, a ram the Howells’ jointly own with Geoff Morgan of Blaencar Texels.

Most of the ewes have lambed by March 20 and the ewe lambs start lambing at the beginning of April.

Lambs are not creep fed and ewes carrying singles get no concentrates pre- or post-lambing; if weather conditions are not too extreme and grass growth is favorable, the twin-rearing ewes don’t get concentrates either.

“If the ewe can’t rear her lambs off grass, they aren’t here for another lambing,’’ says Meinir.

The family farms 450 acres, running 40 suckler cattle including the pedigree Shadog Limousins alongside the sheep enterprise.

Gary and Meinir also buy bulling heifers to calve down and sell as cows with calves at foot.

What started as a new enterprise with 15 heifers three years ago has now grown to 51.

“There is nothing better than seeing a calf being born, and the buzz and sense of achievement we get when we take a group of heifers to sell is unbeatable.’’