Quality always sells in any market and for Northern Ireland livestock farmer, James Alexander, that means using several breeds and crosses in the sheep and the cattle world to produce females of the highest calibre.

While many producers with a keen eye for stock focus on pedigree breeding as an alternative source of income, James who farms in partnership with his parents, Nelson and Anne, wife Ruth and their young family of Mya, Alicia, Isla, Jaxson and Eliza, have been so successful they have already established a brand name in the Jalex prefix which has become synonymous with quality.

It’s a policy which is undoubtedly paying handsome dividends for the Ulsterman whose grandparents started off from humble beginnings on a small hill farm in the glens of Antrim. James’ father, Nelson, established the Alexander Tractors business selling tractors and 4 x 4 vehicles in the 1970s.

The Scottish Farmer:

BRITISH BLUE, Limousin and Simmental cross heifers will be sold individually at the Jalex Select sale on January 2

However, it wasn’t until James took over the management of the farm that their interest in livestock soared and they began dominating the local and national show calf circuit between 2007 and 2014.

Buoyant sales followed with Jalex’ most recent event witnessing 10 commercial breeding heifers scaling 500-670kg sell to a top of £7100 at the Ulster Beef and Lamb championships at Balmoral last month, to average a colossal £3615. Meanwhile, at their on-farm sheep sale of almost 1000 commercial breeding females in August, prices peaked at £480, with Suffolk rams to 6100gns.

The business is continually evolving. While the family’s 450-suckler cow herd was sold off in 2014 for an easier way of life based more on their 4 x 4 business and commercial sheep, James is back doing what he does best – producing increasing numbers of quality commercial breeding sheep and cattle. This time however, most of the cattle are bought in.

So, James has reduced the wrench of transporting finished animals to their end.

“I have always preferred breeding females and quality females – sheep or cattle as replacements to sell for breeding, rather than producing the end product”, said James. “This way, I have a goal in mind of what I want to produce and have to focus on the various elements to make up that animal, rather than solely on the quality of finished animal.”

The Scottish Farmer:

SUFFOLK CROSS Cheviot Mule gimmers sold at the Jalex sale in August

The 1050-acre unit on the outskirts of Belfast is now home to 750 breeding sheep made up of Cheviot Mules, all put to Suffolk to breed Suffolk cross replacements, and 130 pedigree Suffolks – many of which have been sourced from Scottish flocks.

“I looked to Cheviots and traditional Bluefaced Leicesters to breed the Cheviot Mule when there were no such sheep in Ireland. Over here it was the Wicklow Cheviot that was the dominant commercial breeding sheep used to produce the Suffolk cross females that are extremely popular in Ireland, but in my opinion the Cheviot Mule is a far better female, producing lambing percentages of more than 200%,” said James.

After seeing Cheviot Mules at Longtown in 2014, James originally bought several lots from Robert Osbourne, Castlehill; Matt Drummond, Cassington and Robert and Hazel McNee, Over Finlarg, to see how they would perform. Since then, females have been bought regularly from Castlehill, with a few other pens from Longtown if required.

Well accustomed to having visitors to check out the family’s latest acquisitions and the progeny from them, it wasn’t long before the quality of the stock sold themselves – through the ring and privately. And with growing demand for both breeding heifers and sheep it wasn’t long before the family looked to combine the two with an on-farm sale.

In fact, such has been James’ keen eye for quality in sourcing and breeding quality females, that the business looks set to stage its third on-farm sale of breeding sheep next August following this year’s sale of almost 1000 gimmers and 30 Suffolk shearlings.

The Jalex sale on August 1, 2020, proved a huge success with prices peaking at 6100gns for a Suffolk shearling by Scrogton Jack the Lad, with the flock’s 16 Suffolk rams averaging £1686. The gimmers, most of which were Suffolk crosses bred from Cheviot Mule ewes, sold to £480 to average a phenomenal £245 for 880.

The Jalex logo does nevertheless originate from the farm’s commercial cattle business which since the dispersal of the suckler herd has been rebuilt over the past couple of years to include a growing heifer replacement enterprise selling approximately 1000 head a year.

The Scottish Farmer:

JUST ONE of the 50 in-calf heifers up for grabs at the Jalex Select sale

This has expanded to such an extent that there are now 800-1000 head of breeding females on farm at any one time, to sell over the year as in-calf heifers.

James also aims to stage on-farm heifer sales every three to four months, with the first event, the Jalex Select sale of in-calf heifers scheduled for Saturday, January 2, 2021 – just before lambing kicks off!

This event will be conducted with assistance of auctioneer Richard Beattie and the live internet bidding facility Mart Eye.

“An on-farm sale is more relaxing for the buyer as they get a chance to see round the farm and what type of stock you are keeping. It’s also easier on the stock with less haulage involved, and the online bidding adds that extra precedence which is needed with Covid-19,” said James.

“Online bidding makes a huge difference as people can either bid on the day at the sale, or from their own homes, or they can leave a proxy bid.

“We have customers buying large batches of heifers but also have a customer looking for a very specific individual female, and this type of selling is targeted to that customer. Potential buyers can see photographs of individual cattle on our own jalexlivestock webpage, complete with a breakdown of their breeding (where available) due calving date and the sire and sex of the expected calf before the sale either online or in person at the event, or on the run up to it.”

James added: “It is a lot of work getting them all washed and ready for several days of viewing and professional photographs for marketing through social media but it makes a huge difference as you automatically attract a bigger audience and more potential buyers. Selling privately was fine, but how can you accurately value an animal without a ringside of buyers and an auctioneer? – especially this year, given the exponential rise in breeding stock.”

The Scottish Farmer:

MOST OF the heifers for sale are British Blue and Limousin cross heifers

This new on-farm sale on January 2, will include 50 breeding heifers all of which will be three to six months in calf to well-known proven easy-calving Limousin sires. Most have been bought in from farms in the south and the north of Ireland. All are vaccinated for BVD, clostridial diseases, IBR and botulism in addition to all usual dosing protocols.

Jalex focuses on the in-calf market which not only ensures a quicker turnaround, it is also better for potential customers as by selling such females four to five months off calving, they are able to monitor a heifer’s condition and potential calving ease.

All heifers are put to Limousin bulls, some AI’d and some to stock bulls, depending on the time of year with AI’ing being easier when the cattle are housed.

James also plans to AI the next big batch of heifers in March to sexed semen from easy calving bulls thereby potentially adding further value to an animal.

The sale of mostly British Blue and Limousin cross heifers in January, were bulled to stock bulls at grass, sons of Kaprico, Erevelle, Elderberry Galahad (EBY) and Ewdenvale Ivor (LM2014), all of which have been selected for their calving ease and calf quality.

James added: “British Blue and Limousin cross heifers are the most popular, but we have Simmental cross heifers due to easy-calving sires as well. We find that the breeding heifer market goes in cycles between red and white Simmentals and Simmental cross Limousins to British Blue cross Limousins. We try to keep a range of heifers to suit all sucker units.

“I’ll buy 100% beef bred heifers from all over Ireland and the UK, most recently from LivesScot, from 300-350kg right up to 700kg, but ideally I prefer to get them at 500kg and put them straight to the bull for calving anywhere from two years onwards and they’ll sell throughout Ireland, Scotland, Wales and England; but most are sold around the Ulster region.

“The main thing is to buy a breeding heifer that will make a good suckler cow and then put them in calve to easy calving Limousin sires and the buyer can then chose what type of calf they are looking to breed, next time,” he said.

Calves bought in utero from Jalex having already sold to £2500. Add to that an open day where potential customers get a nose round the farm, and such sales are undoubtedly proving a win, win scenario. So, if you’re at a loose end at New Year, forget the high street sales – there is a far more interesting event on January 2 across the Irish Sea, where you can invest your money in something far more interesting either from comfort of your own home with a wee drammie, or in person and see the cattle in their own five-star accommodation.

The Scottish Farmer:

SIMMENTAL CROSS heifers are also extremely popular in Ireland

FARM facts

Farm business: Nelson and Anne Alexander, son James and his wife Ruth and their family of Mya, Alicia, Isla, Jaxson and Eliza.

Farm acreage: 1050acres all grass. Silage made by contractors.

Livestock: 1000+ beef breeding heifers of all crosses and various ages sold throughout the year and 750 commercial breeding ewes; 30 pedigree Suffolks and 30 traditional Bluefaced Leicesters.

Staff: Two full time in summer, three in winter and a shepherd.

Diversification: Alexanders tractors and 4 x 4 business

ON THE spot

Best advice: My father always says: 'Everyday is a schoolday' – I live by this, I believe there is always something to learn and someone to learn from. All you have to do is be open to it, 'listen and watch,' never think you know better.

Best investment: A Limousin bull called Swarland Eddie. I bought him at a time when my herd was just getting to where I wanted it to be and he was the perfect bull to take us to the next stage. His first crop of calves won multiple shows including Balmoral and Allams in 2013 and Smithfield in 2014.

Biggest achievement: A Jalex-bred heifer being the first Irish-bred Smithfield champion and having the honour of judging Smithfield the following year.

Where do you want to be in 2030: Healthy and surrounded by my family, still learning and hopefully innovating. Hopefully agriculture is here to support us through the next 10 years.

Who inspires you most ? Good stock people doing their job well, I am lucky to have met and be in contact with some wonderful stock folk, listening to them and hearing their enthusiasm for good stock, regardless of the animal or breed really keeps me fuelled up to breed/present something to create that level of enthusiasm.