Since Michael Weaver’s grandfather established the Perrinpit flock in 1951, Suffolk sheep and a commitment to the breed’s development have been firmly engrained in the Weaver family’s business.
As current breed president for the Suffolk Society, Michael has followed in his father Roger’s footsteps who held the same position in the breed’s centenary year of 1986.
Over the decades, the breed has evolved substantially, moving from the large-bodied, fine-boned animal of the 1970s to a big-framed, larger-headed animal which has undergone some criticism from commercial producers. However, in recent years, the society has made a conscious shift back to rediscovering the true characteristics of a breed known for its strength as a terminal sire. As a result, Michael says the breed now offers more choice for the commercial producer.
Michael says: “There is certainly more diversity in the breed now than there would have been, so there are definite options for the commercial man and the breed is now more balanced. Over the last 10 years we (the society) have remembered the carcase characteristics and consciously moved away from large frames.”
A change in breed point weightings has been part of this breed shift. Since 1986, 10 points have been taken off the head and added to the back and loin, and legs and feet.
“The carcase is still number one and, while the breed points have changed, the basics are still there. It is still an animal which stands well on four good legs with a head you like the look of, but these days it is not as powerful,” he says.
Michael recognises there is still a proportion of breeders at the top end of the market which still select for big frames and often get the highest prices at the main tup sales. “It probably does not do much for breed perception, but I do not criticise breeders for breeding what they want if they have a market to sell to,” he says.
He also says judging sheep on carcase traits in the showring is a point of emphasis on the breed council and likes to think most judges would look at these traits.
“You do have to remember what the breed is about. I think this was probably lost in the past, but it is certainly getting back on track.”
Over the last few years, more emphasis has also been placed on maternal traits which are attractive to the commercial producer. This reflects some farmers’ preference for using a Suffolk cross ewe bred with a terminal sire, such as a Texel. This makes the most of the Suffolk’s milkiness and wide pelvis.
Michael believes these maternal traits will become more important and also thinks all terminal sires are likely to come under pressure from hybrid breeds in the future. However, he believes the fact the Suffolk produces lambs which grow well off grass will work in the breed’s favour as more producers look to reduce costs by feeding less concentrate.
In fact, the Weavers have seen a marked increase in the number of females and males being sold off-farm to commercial farmers, particularly in the South. This reflects their drive to meet buyer demands by breeding a balanced animal, with a focus on carcase traits. Due to time constraints, Michael has stopped displaying his own flock on the show circuit, with most sales coming from word of mouth.
Roger has recently taken a step back from the business, but is still actively involved in decision-making. The farm at Frampton Cotterell, Bristol, now runs 160 pedigree Suffolks plus 60 Mules. The Mules are a relatively new venture, providing an additional income stream via sales of finished lambs into a local butcher and Bristol restaurants.
Due to the difficulty in sourcing maedi visna-accredited or scrapie-monitored ewes, Michael has chosen to breed his own replacements so as to maintain his flock’s high health status. To achieve a compact lambing period, Michael sponges and artificially inseminates the top third of his Suffolks to breed replacement females and tups for sale or home use. He primarily uses fresh semen collected from his own rams, as well as frozen, bought-in semen, plus semen from his own store of Perrinpit sires.
“I have got rams in my flask which go back to 1990 and before. If they are breeding well in the flock, it means I know I can go back and use their semen with confidence. I used three rams from the tank last year, two of which bred tremendous females – I have got the best crop of ewe lambs I have ever had,” says Michael.
Although he prefers to buy rams, rather than semen, last year he bought straws from a ram he was an under bidder on the year before. “He is not from a recorded flock, but he is well-fleshed and tight-skinned and I liked the look of him. I had also been the under bidder on his father, so I like his line,” he explains.
Once weaned, if offspring are not deemed good enough they are put in the slaughter batch or kept to be put to a Bluefaced Leicester tup. The middle third are served naturally by many of the Suffolk rams used for AI. All in all, the farm runs four Suffolk rams, a Bluefaced Leicester ram and a Charollais ram.
About three years ago he also started producing Mules by putting his bottom third of Suffolks to a Bluefaced Leicester. Mule ewes are then either used as an embryo transfer (ET) recipient or put to a terminal sire, such as a Charollais, to produce fat lambs which are sold at 25kg deadweight. All male Mules are sold for slaughter.
Having Signet-recorded the pedigree Suffolks for more than 40 years, last year Michael decided to stop recording due to cost, lack of demand from commercial customers and concerns over recording method.
“I believe in the science behind recording, but it is not quite working as well in the Suffolks as it is in the cattle industry. That is possibly down to the way they are recorded and the emphasis on different traits. A lot [of breeders] are index chasers and put high index sires on high index dams, but I think there should be a balance between looks and index.”
Years of recording have helped develop the Perrinpit flock, with most of the flock in the top 50 per cent for the breed. Some of the top lambs over the years have also been in the top 10 per cent, with Perrinpit Super Sire 99 in the top 5 per cent and widely used for AI.
When it comes to feeding, the aim is to get as much from grass as possible, but on a farm prone to burn off, supplementation is often necessary in summer.
Lambs destined for the butcher are finished on grass and a home mix of oats, sugar beet pulp and a protein balancer. Shearling rams will be fed grass, stubble turnips and home mix with ram lambs put on the same, plus sugar beet and cabbages. Ewes only receive hard feed six weeks before lambing and get silage or haylage, plus hay after lambing, before going out to grass.
Michael also believes careful ewe rationing and providing vitamin E, minerals and energy licks are a crucial tool in promoting lamb thriftiness. “Poor lamb thriftiness can be reduced many times over by proper management,” he says.