As a third crop of commercial Beltex-cross lambs hit the ground this spring most farmers using the novel double-muscled breed say it’s delivering everything promised, and more in some cases. An occasional foot problem seems the only downside, and that will be bred out soon enough, they believe.

“They’re a tough little lamb,” Brian Falconer, from Moa Flat in West Otago told Country-Wide. “We had one of our worst lambings last year with the weather completely against us and they did just as well as the [purebred] Coopworths.”

His 4900 Coopworth ewes are a particularly tough, thick-skinned, smaller-frame type out of the North Island, chosen to cope with the climate of a farm running from 580 metres to 780m above sea-level, he adds. Ewes aren’t shepherded at lambing either.

“The whole farm is survival of the fittest.”

Over the past three years he’s bought 18 Beltex or Beltex-cross rams and only one has let him down, which was last year due to scald which developed into footrot. It was one of two which needed treatment but the other came good in time for mating. The one that didn’t wasn’t culled: it wintered on swedes with the rest of the rams and Falconer expects to use it as part of the team this autumn.

“I’m using them strictly as a terminal,” he points out.

He says the best indicator of the Beltex’s performance he’s had was with two lines from his first draft of lambs last year. The Coopworth-Beltex cross lambs averaged 1.5kg liveweight more than the Coopworths.

“It’s a pity we’ve not been getting any yield data on them.”

That is where the breed is reputed to excel, and nobody Country-Wide spoke to had been disappointed, including Alliance drafter Rob Maitland who runs a flock of 150 mostly Texel ewes besides his day job.

“My lambs usually yield 56-57% but the first lot of Beltex-cross were 58.99%.”

He’s also quite happy with growth rates having had all last year’s lambs, including those from his 50-odd hoggets, killed by the end of February. “I can’t fault that at all, and last year was a really tough year down here.”

At Wyndham, Brent Robinson’s just completed his third lambing with Beltex-cross lambs, having bought a couple of purebred rams each year for the past three years, putting them to Texel, Poll Dorset, South Suffolk and Suffolk stud ewes to produce first-cross terminal sire rams. Last autumn he put some of his Tex-Beltex and Poll Dorset-Beltex ram lambs to 1000 cull for age Romney/RomTex ewes from his commercial flock, and to 500 of the “B Mob”.

“It’s the first year we’ve had a decent number of lambs with a decent percentage of Beltex in them… we’ve found them to be very hardy, the best terminal we’ve had.”

Growth rates of the cross-breds have been as good as any other cross and the extra yield, which even with a small % of Beltex could add $9-10/head at a $6/kg schedule, “comes in on top of that,” he notes.

He’s not noticed any more dystocia than with other terminal-crosses, probably because the double-muscling doesn’t become apparent until a week to ten days after birth, he says.

“Only with the [Beltex-] Texel-cross we found you’ve just got to watch the odd bigger single. You probably need to keep them a bit tighter on feed.”

That’s echoed by Ross Mitchell at Clinton. He has two Beltex rams and has been gradually weaving their genetics into his 1000-head commercial Coopworth flock, as well as using them to produce crossbred rams to sell from Coopworth and Suffolk stud flocks.

This lambing he said he assisted an occasional Coopworth-Beltex ewe with a single, but he puts that down to having more grass than usual rather than the breed. “The feed got away on us a bit and we struggled to restrict the singles.”

His quarter and 50% Beltex/Coopworth ewes haven’t shown any sign of reduced fertility compared to his purebred Coopworths either, he says, collectively scanning 202% this year. Being a slightly smaller ewe, they also seem to have a lower maintenance requirement.

“They hold their condition really well. Most look like wee barrels.”

Once he’s more confident of the crossbred ewes’ mothering and milking ability he says he might take his commercial ewe flock to one-third Beltex/two-third Coopworth, but a point to watch will be the back legs of the Beltex sires used, he suggests.

“Some of them turn inwards… but at 25% [Beltex] that’s not been an issue.”

Like Robinson, he’s found growth-rates on par with comparable crossbreds and says the extra yield of Beltex-crosses is what “makes the difference”. Compared to his Coopworth lambs’ typical yield of 43-44%, Coop-Beltex have hung up at about 47% and Suffolk-Beltex about 48%, with the best nudging 50% yield, he says.