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Genetic improvement boosts flocks performance

The Eblex improved flock awards are presented to the recorded flock which shows the greatest increase in genetic merit for commercial characteristics over a 12-month period for their breed. Farmers Guardian reports on the 10 breed winners.

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Dorset: Blackdown flock, Devon

Dorset: Blackdown flock, Devon

George Fell is one of five franchised breeders in the UK and runs 450 recorded ewes. His grandfather established the breed in the 1960’s using genetics from five different breeds with the intention of developing a commercial ram capable of serving 80 or more ewes a season, working for five years on a strictly commercial basis.


All Meatlinc breeders record the performance of their progeny, using EBVs for growth rate and carcase traits in their breeding decisions.


There has also been an increased focus on the use of computed tomography (CT) to assess the amount of muscle in the carcase.


The Thorganby flock has made rapid genetic progress due to a selection process based on figures and the relatively young age of the flock. Ewes are sold after four seasons, having been superseded by the genetics of the ewe lamb replacements coming into the flock.


Mr Fell says: “The additional CT scanning allows us to make better informed breeding decisions, identifying elite rams for traits like muscle yield and gigot shape, as well as providing information about killing out percentage and muscle area across the loin.”

Charollais: Coldharbour flock, Buckinghamshire

Tony and June Gregory established their pedigree flock of Charollais sheep in 1990. Since then the pair have worked hard to build their flock by keeping their own replacements and buying in a few extra ewes. Investing in a good ram when necessary has improved genetics and changed the breeding line.


The Gregorys started performance recording their lambs in 1998 and joined the Sire Reference Scheme the following year, with the intention of producing rams with high breeding values to suit both the commercial farmer and pedigree breeders.


Mr Gregory says: “I was keen to start recording when it became evident buyers were looking for cross-bred lambs with a combination of length and muscling ability.”

Shropshire: Morley flock, Cheshire

More than 20 years ago, Claire and Graham Jakeman chose the Shropshire breed to develop a meat outlet and breed their own replacements. In 1994 they bought six ewes and they have worked hard to build their flock to 40 breeding ewes.


The Morley flock has a high health status and is maedi visna accredited, scrapie monitored and performance-recorded by Signet.


Over time they have developed good contacts and a sound reputation, frequently selling breeding females to other pedigree breeders.


Alongside this an export market is gradually starting to grow.


“Even the export market is developing repeat sales as overseas memberships continue to grow, with large flocks of Shropshire sheep now based in France and Germany grazing cider orchards and conifer plantations.


“Performance recording certainly facilitates all markets as breeders are able to access information on individual animals available through the internet and hone their selections based on the information provided,” says Mrs Jakeman.

Wiltshire: Horn Ventonglidder flock, Cornwall

In 2004, Jean and Eddie Burke decided to focus on pedigree breeding and established their flock of Wiltshire Horn sheep.


Using the inbreeding coefficient provided by Signet, they use five rams in single sire mating groups. Most lamb to first cycle providing a uniform group of lambs for easy management.


About 10 ram lambs are kept to sell as breeding males every year with most sold as shearlings. Most ewe lambs are sold for breeding

with approximately 15 of the higher index lambs retained as replacements.


Mrs Burke says: “Incorporating the use of ultrasound scanning provides us with hard data which will improve reliability.


“Our indices continue to climb and carcase quality has definitely improved, based on feedback from the abattoir, with surplus lambs hitting target specifications of R or U3L.”

Hampshire Down: Raburn flock, Northumberland

Joe and Rachel Henry have always recorded with Signet, adding ultrasound scanning measurements a few years ago to increase accuracy. They keep 220 breeding ewes and 90 cattle and, with no access to buildings, their livestock live out all year.


Mr Henry says: “An important attribute is ease of lambing. Like us, most of our commercial tup buyers also lamb outside, so it is essential sheep lamb easily and lambs display good vigour.”


Their objective is to promote well conformed lambs which continue to grow well, without any trouble, so they have a strong culling policy.


Any female requiring significant assistance at lambing is removed from the flock. As lambs approach 18 weeks of age they are reviewed and anything not performing well is removed. Sheep with good figures which do not perform or look the part are culled.


“At Raburn we will continue to breed efficient sheep, promoting less input for more output to keep moving the breed forward,” said Joe.

Lleyn – Eastergrounds flock, Devon

In 1998, Peregrine Aubrey decided to introduce Lleyn genetics into his flock. After buying some registered pedigree ewes he then started to breed his own replacements.


All his sheep are managed and recorded on a commercial basis. Of the 700 Lleyns, the bottom tier are crossed with a New Zealand Suffolk to produce males for prime lamb production, while females sell well as cross-bred commercial breeders.


Mr Aubrey’s main objective is to sell both males and females to commercial producers for reasonable prices. Keeping records of past sheep sales, he uses Signet information with computer software tools to check he can offer non-related rams to the same customers, or rams to customers who have bought breeding females.


He says: “The animals which do well in your local environment will take your program forward and these individuals need to be identified in any breeding program. I believe this can only be done through high level cross flock statistical analyses.”

Southdown: Buckland flock, Shropshire

The Buckland flock, owned by Miriam Parker and Tim Green, was started in 1994 when the breed was listed as ‘critical’ on the Rare Breeds Survival Trust watchlist. With only six ewes and a ram they wanted to support a breed where they felt they could make a difference. They have built their flock to 30 breeding ewes.


Miriam started performance recording the flock in 2011, providing rams ranked by index with information on specific breeding traits. She promotes a blend of growth and maternal traits, using the figures to influence her breeding strategy.


There is a strict culling policy and female replacements are selected from the top third. She pays attention to the Southdown breed index – particularly for maternal traits – and the breeding line history on both sire and dam. Generally the flock promotes longevity and Miriam says: “My philosophy is to focus on stock which I would use in my own flock. Nothing substandard is sold for breeding.”

Suffolk: Hans flock, Northumberland

Hans Porksen established his Suffolk flock more than 30 years ago. Since the late 1980s he has recorded with Signet and used laparoscopic insemination to bring new genetics into the flock.


In the past he has exported Suffolk embryos to Australia, trading superior genetics on a worldwide basis, while keeping the risk of disease to an absolute minimum.


Mr Porksen says: “Using semen from elite high-indexed rams in numerous flocks during the same year provides valuable flock linkage and increased accuracy of evaluations for those involved.


“Since the arrival of best linear unbiased prediction and accurate EBVs, this flock has, with practical interpretation of the data, progressed to be one of the leading flocks in the UK.”


He now uses CT scanning to help with his final selection of males for use in the flock.


“My focus for the future is to have all pure-breds on the farm in the top 1 per cent of the breed, as already achieved with my Texel flock.”

Texel: Corriecravie flock, Staffordshire

Right from the start, Paul and Anna Johnson considered carcases and mobility to be key traits for selection in their pedigree Texel flock.


They used stock rams across the commercial flock providing important feedback on carcase quality when lambs were butchered for private freezer customers.


The Corriecravie flock was caught up in a contiguous cull during the 2001 foot-and-mouth outbreak but, by chance, their female champion, Mrs Sinclair, along with 26 pedigree and six cross-bred ewe hoggs were wintering half a mile from home.


Wishing to progress the ewes sourced from a number of different flocks, Mr Johnson decided to start Signet recording in 2002.


He says: “I hoped recording would help speed up the selection process, identifying important female lines and, provided the figures proved good enough, offering a significant marketing tool.”


He then tried some embryo transfer work in the hope of breeding females for the flock’s long-term future. One of the offspring from the first flush, Corriecravie Union Pacific, was used at home as a lamb in 2013 and it is his lambs which have produced a significant lift in the flock’s average breeding values.

Details on the improved flock award

For commercial producers, the genetic make-up of their rams and ewes is key to the performance of their flock, even though the benefits attributable to superior genetics are only realised under appropriate nutrition and health says Mr Boon.


He says: “There are many ways in which breeders can achieve high rates of genetic gain. Simply taking good, accurate measurements will ensure the data recorded is correct and reliable to benchmark year-on-year. Using this data when making breeding decisions will define the future of a flock.


Ram lambs offer breeders the chance to reduce the generation interval and take their flock forward in a cost-effective way.


“But when breeders considering ram lambs there is often caution due to the risk of in-breeding. However, new software, funded by EBLEX, enables breeders to work this out. Some were over-cautious, some under but both can be detrimental to the genetics of, not just the flock, but the breed.


“It is important to remember that no flock works in isolation and so whether they work directly or indirectly, breeders work together to make these gains.


“Rates of genetic improvement in Signet recorded flocks are at an all-time high. The difference between the best high EBV breeding stock and average animals is increasing year on year.


“This means commercial producers have more to gain when investing in rams with superior genetics. Pedigree breeders can capitalise on these differences too and this is exactly what each of the 10 winners have done.”

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