The UK is home to one of the most diverse sheep industries in the world, with its many levels of stratification, breeds and markets. Louise Hartley speaks to Dewi Jones, chief executive of Innovis, the country’s leading sheep genetics business, for his thoughts on the industry and predictions for the future.
We will start to see a change in the mindset of UK producers over the next five years, and within the next 10 years the industry will be very different, predicts Mr Jones.
He says: “Producers will move away from looking for the perfect markings or the biggest head and focus much more on breeding figures. Most crucially, this change will not be driven by the pedigree breeder, it will be driven by commercial producers.
“There does not have to be winners and losers, just a change of how things are done. The guys who are making big money at Lanark, Builth or Kelso can still get top prices, but performance figures will no longer be an added bonus – they will be a necessity.”
Innovis’ genetics arm is not out there to put pedigree breeders out of business, says Mr Jones.
He says: “It is small pedigree breeders who need to wake up the most to what is happening in the sheep industry. Pedigree breeders will breed for other pedigree breeders until the cows come home, and if they are silly enough to buy at those prices between each other, so be it.
“But as more and more commercial breeders start to grow sheep off grass and begin to performance record, those so-called top pedigree breeders will find themselves without a base market, because buyers will be going direct to other like-minded commercially-focused ram breeders.
“Buying direct from farms is key, giving commercial buyers a clear insight into breeding strategies and performance of nominated ram breeders.
“As demands of the commercial industry change, pedigree breeders will have to adapt their system to produce a ram or ewe which will suit the new market. Buyers will probably still be happy to pay big money, but will want to see exceptional performance records and an engagement into their business from the ram producer.
“Those who are sitting comfortably producing their 20 well-fed rams per year will have the biggest change of scenery.”
There has, however, been an increase in the number of smaller pedigree breeders recently, says Mr Jones, but this has been driven by lifestyle and the sale of sheep is not usually their main income.
“The ‘Texel bubble’, which many predicted to burst, still grows, and Blue Texels are the new fad,” adds Mr Jones.
There are six main on-farm sales of Innovis-bred rams in the UK. Sales are catalogued and rams enter the ring individually with their performance figures shown on a screen. Every buyer receives a number which is used to bid with during the sale.
Before selling begins, Mr Jones introduces every ram, highlighting specific attributes and suggesting which type of ewe the ram might be most suitable to pair with. Rams are banded according to performance and visual appearance.
Mr Jones says: “Even though our main aim is to sell rams with exceptional performance figures, we know they have to look the part, so both are taken into consideration when rams are banded.”
Selling begins at a fixed base price – £800 for a terminal ram and £900 for a maternal ram – and buyers raise their card if they wish to buy. If there is only one bidder, the purchase is completed and the buyer’s number is sprayed on the side of the ram.
If there is more than one bid, buyers have one of two options: they can either enter a ‘hat’ and a name is pulled out to choose the successful bidder; or they can bid against each other.
Mr Jones says: “Bids are taken in increments of £25. Bidders are not run up and it is all very clear. The sale takes place as quickly as any other conventional sale and the atmosphere in the ring is electric.”
About 1,300 Innovis and Focus Genetics-bred rams have been sold this year, selling for an average of £650 per head and topping at £1,525.
Mr Jones says: “The Innovis rams can comfortably cover 80-100 ewes per year, so it is worth paying a bit more for better genetics and needing fewer sires.
“Our challenge is to get buyers to the sales, not this year, but next year. It is therefore in our interest to produce robust high performance rams to keep customers coming back.
“When a maternal ram is purchased from Innovis, the company will do its utmost to find buyers for ewe lambs.”
Simple things such as not tolerating lame sheep will make a huge to difference to any business, says Mr Jones.
“At Innovis, we would never knowingly breed off a lame sheep, and anything which is lame is recorded.
“If a sheep has to be treated more than once, it becomes untenable from a shepherding point of view.
“In the breeding programme, we turn all sheep over once a year and physically measure each foot of each sheep. Each foot is given a score for foot health and structure and we are currently developing a breeding value for the trait.”