The Thomas family made the switch from commercial cross-bred ewes to pedigree Berrichons, and they have not looked back, now running the largest flock of the breed in the country. Laura Bowyer finds out more.
ntil some 15 years ago, Gareth and Monica Thomas ran a flock of 400 commercial ewes, consisting of Suffolk, Charollais, Hampshire Down and Cambridge crosses at their farm near Pontarddulais, Swansea, alongside their milking herd.
While visiting the Royal Show in 2001, a Berrichon ram caught Gareth Thomas’ attention and he went on to buy a breeding male from Mark Crane, Thetford, at a society sale in Worcester to put to his commercial ewes.
When their first crop of lambs came to fruition, Gareth says its progeny were his most vigorous lambs, quickest to get up and suckle while their siblings of other breeds were under the heat lamp.
Gareth says: “We were really impressed by the breed. We let all four of our children keep an animal of their choice. Our daughter, Alaw, wanted sheep, so Monica and I bought her six Berrichon ewes which she kept separate to the main flock because of their MV-accreditation. She was lambing them at the start of January to ensure they were in condition for shows and sales.”
In 2006, the couple chose to concentrate on their herd of pedigree Holsteins, selling their flock of commercial ewes while increasing cow numbers from 120 to 250 head.
Sheep and cattle numbers now match. Last year, 230 ewes were put to the ram, and ewe numbers have hit 250 this year, making them the biggest Berrichon flock in the country, which Gareth and Monica run with sons Ifan, who works at home, and Rhys, who is a dairy specialist vet.
Gareth says: “We are strict on culling. Now we have the numbers we can be pickier about what we breed from.”
The family’s most successful show winner has been Newark Maximus, bred by Dumfriesshire breeder Frances Barbour, and has never lost against another ram at the Royal Welsh.
Maximus’ mother was placed breed champion by Rhys at the Royal Highland Show while judging in 2012.
At the same time, Gareth and Monica were holidaying in Scotland and contacted the breeder to see if any ram lambs were available. Paying the Newark flock a visit, they consequently bought the ram in a telephone bid during the society’s Carlisle sale the same year.
The family are responsible for paying the record breaking price for a Berrichon as this year’s early First Choice show at Worcester, where 3,500gns changed hands for the ram Spring Prince Charming from Charles and Rebecca Holtom, Coventry.
Rams are also usually sold at the society sale at Worcester and at breeding sheep sales at Llandeilo.
Tups are put to the ewes at the start of August. Five are in use this year, four Berrichon stock rams and a Blue Texel which was bought from Beili Blues, Pencader, Carmarthen.
Next on the Thomas family’s agenda is the production of Berrichon cross Blue Texel, dubbed Blue-Berries.
Ifan says: “We wanted to put a bit of colour into a Berrichon cross to make them more appealing to the mountain men, who may think the pink faces of the Berrichon look a bit fragile to stand the conditions on the hill.
“Currently, cross-bred rams seem to be making as much money as pure-breds so we think we have to go with the trend or get left behind.”
Gareth says: “We only keep the best 120 lambs for breeding – 55 ram lambs and 65 ewe lambs – and the rest go for culling, with 85 per cent killing out as E-grades, bearing in mind these are not even our best lambs.”
Sheep are run on a grass-based system but rams are fed creep and silage in the lead up to sales. However, some buyers favour visiting the farm before sales to buy privately before rams are pushed on feed.
Gareth believes their pedigree sales were affected by the lamb price last year, saying 10 rams were sold off-farm compared to 25 in previous years. He says people may have been more likely to keep hold of their stock rams for an extra year to save on costs and hopes this year’s improved lamb trade will encourage more people to buy.
Berrichons are wider and fuller in the gigot and fast growing, lengthy animals, which is where the weight is, says Ifan.
It was a pair of Berrichon cross Beltex which led the Thomas family to pick up third place in the butchers’ lamb class at the 2014 Welsh Winter Fair, which Gareth says is their biggest achievement to date as they were competing on a commercial basis with other breeds.
He says: “We have competed in pure classes at the Welsh Winter Fair for years, but we wanted to compete in the fat lamb classes too. We were pleased to be placed third out of 18, with the two carcases weighing bang on the 100kg limit, and we also won our live class with a pair of pedigree Berrichons.”
Making the trip to Builth’s main ram sale with the Thomas family will be 30 Berrichon yearling rams, where they will be the biggest Berrichon vendor.
Ifan has steered the farm’s use of technology, being a keen adopter of EID. By next year, he says he will be able to trace a sheep’s breeding back to its grandparents just by reading its tag, making great time savings.
Berrichons have the ability to breed out of season, lambing three times in two years, but they do not do so at Goitre Fach. This is because breeding in this way would not produce sheep ready for the sales and shows and may cause stress to the ewe’s body.
Scanning at 170 per cent, they have little need for assistance and Gareth says they have few losses as the breed has a long neck, so the head is already sat in its feet, making easier lambing.
Daily liveweight gain is monitored in lambs from birth to eight weeks. Berrichon lambs weigh in at five kilos at birth, measured using a plastic bag and luggage scales, and the weights are input into the farm’s recording programme.
Ifan says: “Using EID aids our management, allowing us to more easily assess which lambs should be kept for breeding and which should be sent on the hook. Only lambs gaining more than 310g per day will be kept for breeding.”
Daily liveweight gain monitoring stops at weaning, which is used to monitor the lambs’ performance, the ewes’ milkiness and the sire’s ability to pass on growth traits.
Ifan says: “Monitoring weights can give a view of the flock which you cannot see with your eyes. In this way, we can compare ages with weight gains.”
Ifan and Rhys’ next venture is to draw semen from Newark Maximus and, hopefully, Spring Prince Charming to be sold privately and through a specialist vet.
They also want to buy-in French blood through imported AI to grow the gene pool in this country. To minimise the threat of bluetongue, Gareth believes importing semen, rather than buying a ram in, may be the best way.
He says: “Over the last five years there has been an increase in the breed’s popularity, which I think is down to advertising and promotion and an increase in the availability of rams. Also the sheep keep improving as the number of breeders keep increasing.”
The Thomas family also milk 250 pedigree Holsteins and rear their own heifer replacements; so there is about 250 youngstock on-farm.
All cows are put to a Holstein, using AI for the first three months and then natural service, depending on the work load at the time. The two bulls at Goitre Fach are from Monmouthshire-based Sahara and Wiltor Holsteins and are genomically tested.
Gareth says: “The first heifers from bulls are coming through now and we are impressed with them. We tend to keep bulls for three years and then sell for culling, to ensure they are not serving any daughters.”
Gareth says they cannot sell through the live markets as they have been down with TB for five or six years and consequently bull calves go for slaughter at two weeks of age as they are unable to go through the ring due to TB restrictions.
Milking through a 12:24 fully-automated herringbone parlour and supplying Muller, Gareth says he is looking for yield, butterfat and health, with the herd averaging 10,500kg per lactation from just under three tonnes of concentrates per cow per year, at 3.2 per cent protein and 4 per cent butterfat.
Calving all year round, births spike in autumn as they were historically autumn-calvers and he believe this is what the processors want.
They are a closed herd, except for bull purchases, and vaccinate for BVD, leptospirosis and monitor for IBR and Johne’s, both of which they are free of.