Selective breeding to improve desirable characteristics has happened for thousands of years and is not a new concept, however our ancestors only ever had the opportunity to do this by eye.
Signet breeding services provides the national genetic evaluation for most sheep breeds in the Sheepbreeder scheme, giving breeders the tools to select breeding stock on more than just looks alone.
Signet performance recording uses pedigree information, birth information, eight-week and 17- to 21 week weights and ultrasound scanning to give breeders the ability to select breeding stock on individual genetic potential.
Animals registered in the Sheepbreeder scheme receive individual estimated breeding values (EBVs).
These allow owners to identify and select the best individuals in their flocks to make educated breeding decisions and actively improve performance of their flocks. EBVs are publicly available at basco.org and are often advertised at sales.
These allow commercial ram buyers to identify the individuals which will best boost the profitability of their business.
Using rams with superior breeding can increase flock profitability by £3-£4 per lamb or more. This can be through increasing early growth rates and improving conformation of lambs or improving the overall productivity of replacement females.
IN THE FIELD: Peregrine Aubrey, Kingsbridge, Devon
PEREGRINE Aubrey is in his 10th year of recording and he explains he started because he was retaining replacement ewes and had no real data on which to select them.
Additionally, he says he could not tell how good the rams he was buying were.
“It has been a really positive experience. I have gone from near the bottom of the Lleyn ranking to the very top in nine years.
“However, the demand for improved genetics is far lower than I had hoped for and it is both me and the sheep farming community who are losing out. Breeding and buying improved sheep genetics is mutually beneficial, especially as rams with estimated breeding values (EBVs) do not have to cost that much extra.”
Mr Aubrey says he has not found the cost or time spent recording too onerous.
But he does say if you want to get all available EBVs it can become more specialised, for example you would be required to weigh at birth for lamb survival EBVs, and have individual faecal egg count and saliva tests for worm resistance EBVs.
In terms of improvements, Mr Aubrey has seen a reduction in the days to slaughter for lambs, meaning reduced fattening costs, and he has also been able to divert grass to breeding ewes, cutting their overwintering costs.
“Performance recording is the only accurate way to breed for better performance. Without it you cannot claim you are breeding for better genetics or perhaps even better sheep.”
THE Clay family started performance recording their commercial flock in the early 1960s and included its Gaynes Texel flock in the system in the 1980s.
Richard Clay says: “The ability to be able to identify superior animals has led us to being able to increase the index yearly. In 2015 we had the top Texel indexing ram in the country.”
Richard and his son Andrew say the recording has been simple and they are able to make time for the weighing and scanning.
“I would definitely recommend it to other farmers,” says Mr Clay.
“It is important to identify the best performing animals, not just those which look good. And it adds value to commercial rams.”
He has seen an average carcase weight increase, up to 22kg without going over fat, therefore allowing them to market the lambs to butchers and abattoirs at this higher weight.
He adds: “The big issue is about treating all sheep as commercial. I want to breed rams which are useful for the industry. I need them to grow fast, have good muscle, correct and tight fleeces. Recording helps me achieve this.”
LINDSAY Rumming started Signet recording little more than a year ago to support the genetic progression of her breed and prove the Oxford Down is a commerciallyviable terminal sire.
She says: “I felt many of our breeders’ views were anecdotal and could not be backed up by data. The breed is a fantastic terminal sire but has been pushed out by continental breeds. We need to progress our native breeds and give commercial farmers the data to confirm the Oxford Down is the tup they should choose.”
She had already been recording her own data – growth rates, finish weights, grades and kill-out percentages – but felt having the estimated breeding values, which Signet could provide through detailed performance records and ultrasound scanning, would give the credible evidence of performance which is required by commercial customers.
“So far I have had some really interesting results. I do not creep feed my lambs so it has been really good to see what a naturally finished lamb can achieve.”
As she is still new to this she is expecting improvements to happen over a number of years, but she will concentrate on producing rams for the commercial market with superior muscling and optimum fat cover.
In terms of her business, Ms Rumming hopes to see a small premium on breeding stock with Signet figures. It should give buyers an opportunity to select the stock which complement and improve their flocks.
“My goal is to expand the flock and I want performance recording to help me identify my best breeding stock.”