Michael and Melanie Alford are the owners of a diverse range of businesses under the Stillmans name; a slaughterhouse, wholesale butchery and retail butchers shops. The business started in 1935 and prides itself on supplying the very best meat, ethically reared and sourced locally to Taunton in
Somerset. They are also very well known for their Foxhill multi-prize winning herd of Limousin cattle and under the same prefix their flock of Charollais sheep.
Fellow breeders of Charollais met at the butchers to see and hear Mike’s views on Charollais as breeders of high quality lamb meat. Each week Mike buys 300-400 lambs and of these 75% are Charollais. ‘I try to buy all Charollais due to the conformation and carcase quality of the lambs.’
For the demonstration Mike had pulled out six live prime lambs, which have been shorn bare so that the body shape was easy to view. Three of the six were Charollais and Mike points out the conformation traits that make a superb meat lamb but are also the traits breeders should select in their breeding animals. ‘Firstly I look for flat shoulders in a ram, big muscles across the back and wide hips. A short neck and flat shoulder follows through with a bigger eye muscle; rounded shoulders produce a narrow shaped eye muscle.” But Mike was quick to point out the difference in a well-fleshed flat shoulder and animals with too much bone and width at the shoulder which can cause lambing issues.
Good conformation rams will produce a higher quality, retail carcases. Charollais produce more meat throughout the body, meaning more meat for mincing, whilst preserving meat tenderness and flavour. Mike’s advice when breeding and buying rams is to ensure the rams have a short neck and flat shoulders to produce bigger eye muscles and while length is great, don’t confuse length with width, and compromise the meat on the animal by substituting it with length.While eye muscle and fat cover is very important for prime lambs, meat tastiness is also a big factor for Mike when buying lambs. He ideally buys lambs with conformation grades R & U, but stays away from lambs with E grade. “These lambs often carry the double muscling gene; this produces a high meat yield but very poor meat eating quality, lacking taste and is tough.” Mike points out that this element is so important to his butchering business and wholesale meat supplies; lamb meat always needs to taste delicious to ensure return business. The export market buyers tend to lean towards E grades but there is no business come back on it.
The colour and marbling in the Charollais breed is one of the reasons why he chooses the breed for his business, adding more taste than other breeds that have less marbling, which was plain to see from the different breed carcases on display. “We also like to have heavier lambs for our trade and Charollais sired lambs fit very well into the higher weight bands; plenty of meat and not overfat.”
Mike also explained that one of the key benefits to using Charollais rams to produce commercial lambs is that they are to first to finish and can finish off grass alone, unlike other terminal sire breeds, who need feed to finish. He emphasised the importance of farmers recognising that their lambs are finished properly and not just sending them to market when they reach 40kg.
He explains this by saying “You would only pick apples when they are ripe, not just when they are big. Likewise, pick lambs for market when they are finished, not just when they have the weight. To ensure the fat balance is right on the animals, catch the tail (if there’s fat on the tail, there is fat in the carcase, but no fat on the tail, means no fat on the carcase) and feel the back, the muscle needs to be higher than the bone.”