Sheep farming in Iceland has changed significantly in the last decades, mainly as a result of more knowledgeable farmers and an effective breeding programme, delegates at Sheep Breeders Round Table were told.
heep farming has always played a major role in Icelandic agriculture, with sheepmeat the largest meat production sector at 34 per cent. This is down from 47 per cent in 1996 and as a result of over supply the price paid to farmers fell by 30 per cent over the last year.
Production systems are very much influenced by the weather. Lambing takes place in May, normally inside, and then from June to September ewes and lambs are taken to graze on mountain pastures so the lower ground can be cut for forage. In September all sheep are gathered and brought back down for lambs to be slaughtered in September and October. Slaughterhouses close at the end of October and any lambs retained for breeding are then kept inside.
Eybor Einarsson, of the Icelandic Agricultural Advisory Centre, said average growth rate of Icelandic lambs is 250-300g on good pasture reaching 40-45kg liveweight in four-five months
“The current breeding programme has changed the conformation and increased the ratio of muscle to fat and bone to in-lamb carcases.
“The breeding goal is to maximise growth rate, so optimum carcase weight can be attained on summer pastures.”
Sheep were brought to Iceland by the Vikings and there has been little influence from other breeds since then. Icelandic sheep are double coated, can be horned or polled, can be various colours and have short legs and a heavy build.
Unique to Iceland are Leadersheep which are unlike any other breed and long legged and narrow. Their role is to lead the flock, with each flock having just one or two of the breed.
Because of the risk of scrapie Iceland is divided into isolation zones, with no movement allowed between zones and in some areas not even between flocks.
Artificial insemination (AI) was introduced in 1939 and is often the only option to introduce new blood. About 30,000 ewes are inseminated each year, mainly with fresh semen and farmers carrying out the procedure themselves at a cost of £6-£7 per ewe. AI sires are selected from information on the sheep recording system.
There is a long tradition of sheep recording in Iceland which provides an important tool, both for farmers and breeding work. Currently more than 90 per cent of all sheep are recorded. Sheep farmers are obliged to record all their sheep in the system in order to receive their subsidies.
The sheep recording system is web-based (www.fjarvis.is), with each farmer having access to it to record information about his animals. They can create reports about their own flock as well as the most productive farms and the progeny of AI rams.
All animals have individual ID numbers based on birth year, sex, flock and number within the flock. This information stays with them if they move between flocks. EID is not used as it is considered too expensive.
Other information then recorded includes litter size, colour, dam and sire ID, slaughter date, carcase weight, EUROP classification and cause of death (slaughter, culling, other losses).
Individual information for all carcases is sent automatically from the slaughterhouse to the database.
About 65,000 (10 per cent) of lambs are scanned each year for selection of replacements animals and progeny testing for weight and carcase quality.
Progeny testing of rams in Iceland was initiated by Dr Halldor Palssonin in 1957, with the emphasis on carcase conformation. Rams which scored high for slaughter lambs were further tested for daughter productivity.
Similar progeny tests are still run at the research farm, Hestur and advisers travel between farms with the equipment and advise on selection of breeding rams and ewe lambs.