North of England Mules are the star attraction at Broomhill Farm, Aspatria, Cumbria, for their mothering abilities and ease of lambing where father and son duo, Peter and Chris Hird, have also diversified into finishing up to 5500 pigs per year.

“Mules work well for us, because they are easy to work with being able to lamb outside and they have plenty of milk – they are the foundation of our flock,” said Chris, who buys in 150-200 Mule gimmer replacements each year at around £135-145 per head which are tupped with Suffolks, whilst their Suffolk cross female progeny are retained and put to Beltex tups.

The Scottish Farmer:

Some of the Suffolk cross ewes with their Beltex sired lambs Ref:RH300620059 

“We’ve farmed the Mule ewe here at Broomhill for as long as I can remember,” said Chris. “When I was young, I remember dad farming here alone fattening store cattle and contracting during the summer months, so he needed a ewe that would look after herself and finish her lambs off grass during summer.

“We’ve tried other crosses in the past which are either hard work at lambing time or take along time to finish their lambs. So now we are back to what works best for us,” he added.

The Scottish Farmer:

A welcoming sign into Broomhill Farm 

Lambing kicks off early March inside due to unpredictable weather, with 180-200 of the older, five-shear Mules and older Suffolk cross ewes taking to the shed first, whilst the younger Mules and ewe lambs, lamb outside from the April 01.

“Ewes bearing single lambs are kept inside so that we can try and mother a second lamb onto them, as their mothering ability is second to none. If they are able to take a second lamb it makes our life a lot easier, rather than having to rear them on the bottle,” said Chris, who is married to Jennie, and together with their two children – Ava (5) and Danny (4), are all involved at lambing time either, feeding ewes in individual pens, bedding pens and looking after spare lambs.

The Scottish Farmer:

Good strong Betex cross lamb with its Suffolk cross mother Ref:RH300620066 

“We do try to leave some of the triplet ewes with three lambs, as the Mules are capable of rearing them – so why take that away from them. They have excellent mothering abilities and are one of the very few cross-bred ewes that can do this,” added Chris, who normally rears around 60-70 triplets a year as threes.

The flock tends to get a lot of triplets too, being a lowland farm, with the scanning percentage hitting around 215%-220%, and scanning to kill percentage being around 1.8-1.9 per ewe.

The Scottish Farmer:

One of the Mule ewe with April born triple  Suffolk cross lambs, the female progeny are retained and put to Beltex tups  Ref:RH300620057  

“Our main issue at lambing time is the unpredictable weather. It can cause a number of problems with newly born lambs on the ground, or if there is not enough grass for the ewes.

“Some 10 years ago, we had a few problems with abortion, however, we started vaccinating for enzootic and toxoplasmosis and we seem to have overcome this. Even though its expensive it is a worthwhile exercise as it provides piece of mind at a busy time of year.

“Even when things are going well at lambing it is still hard work, so we try to minimise any issues that we can, so we save money in the long run with lower mortality rates,” said Chris.

Ewes rearing singles are provided with energy buckets four to six weeks prior to lambing, while those carrying twins and triplets are fed ewe rolls and fodder beet. All ewes are fed fodder beet after lambing until the grass starts to grow.

The Scottish Farmer:

Some of the  female Suffolk crosses that lambed in April 

“We have quite a wet farm here, and run a lot of sheep per acre so it does take time for the grass to come in the spring. We winter all the ewe lambs and around 50% of the ewes away from home on winter keep, which I feel is a very important part to our system, I would dread to think what the grass situation would be like if we had all the sheep at home during winter,” said Chris, who runs four Mule ewes or six ewe lambs to one acre during the summer.

The fat lambs are sold through Penrith and Longtown auction market at live weight, with Suffolk cross Mules aiming at around the 50kg to average £92-95, and the Suffolk cross Beltex weighing 43kg to 45kg to level out at £85-£90, with a total of 1600 lambs sold annually.

The Scottish Farmer:

Triple Suffolk lambs doing well at Broomhill Ref:RH300620098  

“Trade changes year on year, and can fluctuate a lot during the year, however, we always sell our fat lambs through the live ring to try and support the auctions. We never sell anything deadweight,” said Chris, who sells breeding sheep (Suffolk crosses) privately to repeat customers, aiming to sell around 350 gimmers per year.

“We buy in replacement Mules as it is easier in the long term. I can buy a consistent run of good sheep through the auction ring and there are plenty of Mule sales all over the country, which not only shows the demand for them but also gives potential customers a variety to pick from,” said Chris, who buys his replacements as gimmers or ewe hoggs.

“Everything needs to make money and it is the Mule that does that for us. We look for Mules with a good body, plenty length and a tight skin, and sheep with a bit of bone,” said Chris.

Such is the profitability of the Mule at Broomhill, that the family has increased flock numbers over the past 10 years.

The Scottish Farmer:

Some of the Suffolk cross ewes with their Beltex sired lambs Ref:RH300620059  

“Customers continue to come back year on year and we also have new customers trying our shearlings, so we have been looking to produce more breeding sheep. However, we don’t want to flood our own market. Everything is driven on the trade and if we get a fair trade for a fair product, we know our potential,” said Chris.

As well as all the hard graft among the sheep there is a lot of time involved in the 5500 pigs that are finished each year at Broomhill, from mucking out, bedding and drawing fat pigs for slaughter.

“The pigs have been a great diversification for us, as well as the income that comes with them, the manure that we get off of them is improving our farm year on year, resulting in better soil conditions for the farm,” said Chris.

Each batch of pigs takes 15 weeks to fatten, pigs come in at around 25kg and leave the farm at 110kg.

“We are always looking at ways of becoming more efficient and improving our farm, as well as looking at all profitable routes, which is why the Mule best suits our system,” concluded Chris.

The Scottish Farmer:

With large flock of ewes lots of stock rams are required at Broomhill  Ref:RH300620071 

On the Spot questions

1. Best return on investment? My Shearing machine and handpiece which taught me a skill that let me travel the world meeting people and making money.

2. Best advice ever received? Happy wife happy life! Have your finger in lots of pots so when somethings doing well it can carry another part that’s maybe struggling.

3. Biggest achievement to date? Increasing stock numbers but not compromising quality. Also having two amazing children with my wife Jennie.

4. If you could change one thing, what would it be? We probably should have built an anerobic digester when the feed in tariff was good to utilize the pig muck better.

5. What are your hobbies? Playing pool for the local pub and taking the family round a few summer shows.

Farm Facts

Flock numbers: 1200 ewes – 700 North of England Mules and 500 Suffolk crosses as well as bed and breakfast 5,500 pigs per year

Acres: 240 acres owned, and a further 240 acres rented

Who is all involved in the business: Chris and Jennie hird, and father, Peter as well as two part time staff, Daniel Batty (tractor man) and Mike Rooke (GFW)

Crops: 140 acre of crop to include winter wheat, winter barley, spring barley and oats, in which the family run a contracting business with the main roles being combining, square bailing and forage waggoning.

How long has the business been running: The Hird family have been based at Broomhill Farm for 40 years.