Results from a three-year project aiming to improve carcase quality and growth rates in Swaledale lambs have shown progress can be made using a simple recording system.
Wendy Short reports...
A SIMPLIFIED recording system, which was specifically designed by farmers for their own Swaledale flocks, has proved a useful tool to aid the selection of rams, highlighting the limitations of choosing sires by visual judgement alone.
That was the conclusion of a project driven by a group of Yorkshire producers which monitored lamb growth rates and collected data from muscle and fat scanning, as well as abattoir feedback.
The North Yorkshire Moors Swaledale Breeders Group project, which concluded this month, is now seeking to extend the recording programme and is looking for new members.
A project wind-up meeting was held recently at Hunt House Farm, near Whitby, which is run by project member Mark Graham, who farms 1,300 pure-bred Swaledales in partnership with his brother-in-law Ian Thompson.
Speaking at the meeting, independent sheep consultant Kate Phillips explained the project used data from six participating farms, with information generated by the recording of more than 2,000 lambs analysed by Signet Breeding Services.
Mrs Phillips said: “The information to date shows rams which fell in the top 10 per cent for performance figures produced lambs worth an estimated £3-£5 more than rams in the bottom 10 per cent.
“It found a difference of as much as 2kg between eight-week-old lambs from the best sires and the progeny of poorer rams.
“There was also a 3kg differential between the heaviest and lightest lambs at the second weighing and a wide variation in muscle and fat scan depths. Our figures show type does not need to be sacrificed, as some of the best rams are also considered the best examples of the breed on visual appearance.
“Nevertheless, artificial insemination is not a practical option for most upland farms and this is a limiting factor, in terms of the potential for genetic progress.”
Maternal characteristics had also been taken into account, she stressed.
“Signet analyses show the top rams also have the potential to breed females with good mothering ability and milkiness,” she said.
“A comparison of two rams showed the sire with the bestperforming lambs had a score of 0.46 for maternal ability, while the poorer animal was allocated a figure of -0.25.”
The challenges of sire recording in a hill farming situation had been largely overcome by the adaptation of standard systems, explained project chairman Tim Dunn, who farms near Helmsley.
AHDB Beef and Lamb, which supported the project, had secured funding to supply farms with EID systems and the sheep were divided into separate management groups.
As an alternative to weighing the lambs at birth, they were categorised as small, medium or large.
On Mr Dunn’s own farm, the traditional eight-week lamb weight recording period was replaced with a date which fitted in with the annual gather for shearing, with the figures adjusted by Signet to provide a comparison across participating flocks.
Back fat scanning and a second weighing were carried out at 21 weeks and a limited number were followed through to slaughter.
“Our members have been instrumental in developing a process which suits their practices and therefore the amount of extra work that has been generated has been minimal,” said Mr Dunn.
“One ram stood out because his lambs were the heaviest at the onset of the finishing period, despite having produced a greater number of twins.
“He also scored highly for lambs which met carcase specification, while another ram had a marked reduction in lamb days to finishing.”
Mr Dunn added the Swaledale lamb has come in for ‘some criticism’, but he believed these trial results pointed to its potential to achieve the desired market specification.
“As pedigree breeders, we are already using individual sire matings and we have records going back for generations,” he said.
“It is important we keep pace with other breeds. It is in our own interests to produce accurate figures, as our future profitability is linked to the performance of our own stock and of the sheep that are sold off the farm.”
The economic benefit of having figures to accompany Swaledale rams which were offered for sale had been highlighted by the study, said Mr Dunn, and there was an opportunity for rams which had been evaluated as part of the project to be traded within the group.
In the meantime, members were planning to hold further meetings, to discuss how the project might be continued.
“In my opinion, we need to monitor at least two generations of sheep, in order for a true picture to emerge,” Mr Dunn said.
“That will take at least a decade and the information will be more valuable if additional flocks are entered into any scheme that might be developed in the future.”