Faith and reliance in performance recording for some 30 years is proving to be a solid foundation for flock improvement for one three-way integrated sheep enterprise in Devon. Rebecca Jordan reports.
Fourteen years ago, 25 per cent of David Rossiter’s milking herd at Burton Farm, Galmpton, tested positive for bovine TB.
The herd had struggled with this problem for four years before David decided enough was enough.
In 2007 it was sold, leaving David with 280 Poll Dorsets which had dovetailed well with the dairy cows ever since he bought Burton Farm in 1984.
“I started the Huish flock in the 1970s with my pocket money,” says David.
“When cows came in for winter, the ewes, which lamb in autumn, grazed the ground. In spring, when we rested up for silage and hay, we held the sheep tighter on poorer ground.
“Because I was used to a milk cheque bringing in income 12 months of the year and always had to respect and acknowledge the bank manager, I focused on setting up a sheep breeding enterprise which reflected that business approach.”
The result is a three-way integrated sheep enterprise made up of Poll Dorset, Exlana and Suffolk/Aberblack flocks which David manages with his son, Richard.
The sheep contribute financially through the year via breeding stock or finished lamb sales, thereby creating a continuous cashflow.
And the strength of the overall farm business is backed up by quality stock, which continue to improve in terms of fertility and growth through the use of performance recording and a strict culling regime.
David says: “The Poll Dorsets are still the biggest part of the business, but each breed has its part to play.
“None compete with each other as they provide three separate customer bases.
“When I visited New Zealand in 1975, I saw first-hand why the Poll Dorset is such a popular terminal sire.
“Its genetics were producing fast-growing lambs with quality carcases and lambing ease.
“I wanted to bring back the genetics generating those traits to break the traditional mould over here and breed heavier lambs with less fat.”
The imported New Zealand and Australian genetics have made a huge difference, but the use of performance recording has given an extra edge and sped up the results”
As a result, Poll Dorset lambs at Huish are currently finishing 4kg heavier, at 20-22kg deadweight, compared with those in the 1970s.
Progress has been fast-tracked by David’s heavy reliance on, and faith in, performance recording and 30 years ago a group of like-minded breeders set up the Centurion Dorset Breeders Group with a nucleus flock at Lackham College.
With the introduction of cervical artificial insemination technology, this flock was disbanded, but members were able to continue the breeding programme by selecting rams through their own sire reference scheme based on performance analysis using best linear unbiased prediction within member flocks.
David says: “We continue to make progress. The imported New Zealand and Australian genetics have made a huge difference, but the use of performance recording has given an extra edge and sped up the results.”
On average, between 70 and 80 per cent of the 520 Poll Dorset ewes lamb between September 15 and October 10. Those which do not, lamb in January.
The first group’s lambing percentage is 170 per cent, with January lambers between 180-185 per cent.
Because Poll Dorset ram lambs are fertile at just 12-14 weeks old, weaning takes place then when lambs weigh between 30kg and 35kg liveweight.
The best lambs are selected as flock replacements or for breeding sales, while the rest are sold through Waitrose from the last week in December.
“Our aim is to send all finished stock between 12 and 16 weeks old,” says David.
“One of the concepts behind relentlessly trying to improve your flock is your rejects, but those improve each year.
“And we only keep our own Poll Dorset replacements from September lambing.
We want to be able to breed out of season so if we kept youngstock from ewes which failed to conceive in September, we would not be selecting correctly.”
At weaning, breeding ewe lambs move onto a green crop until the end of February.
Vetches have been part of the arable rotation at Huish for 25 years and provide good feed for all newly weaned lambs.
Thereafter they graze permanent pasture and cliff ground.
“We do not breed them until they are two-tooths,” says David. “In the long-term, for us, this is a cheaper and more efficient system than pushing these lambs to breed as ewe lambs.”
Ram lambs are offered better keep and stay on green crops until mid-March, when the ground is ploughed, and move onto young grass leys which include chicory, favoured for its anthelmintic properties.
Ram lamb selection also follows a strict protocol.
Any lamb David and Richard would like to breed from is retained.
Five with high performance figures are entered at the Centurion Dorset Breeders’ Group sale at Exeter on April 9.
Stock is also sold at the May Fair in Exeter, as well as at home privately.
Also lambing in January are 70 pure Suffolks and 130 Suffolk/Aberblacks, the latter an initiative in partnership with Innovis.
David says: “This is a hardy black-headed sheep which suits the commercial farmer because all performance recorded data is sourced from flocks which offer no concentrates after lambing.
“This is a strict stipulation which is adhered to for the good of the breed.”
David has recorded Aberblack weights averaging 87kg liveweight in the middle of April, with a top of 101kg.
The whole farm enterprise is managed in a farm environmental programme implementing Higher Level
Stewardship on National Trust ground.
Here, 400-head of pure Exlanas and 100 Exlana ewes crossed with a Poll Dorset excel by efficiently converting rough grazing into a viable enterprise.
“They lamb indoors in March and, on a very low input system, do really well on this ground during summer,” says David.
“The demand for Exlana females has been phenomenal in the past two years. I am one of eight Exlana breeders, all part of Sheep Improved Genetics (SIG), established in 2013.
“When we took a stand at the NSA sheep event a few years ago to promote this wool-shedding breed, we were almost laughingstock.
“But suddenly commercial producers keen to lamb outdoors are recognising that wool is now costing money, in terms of shearing and management, and are trying a breed with wool bred out.”
SIG holds its annual sale in the first week of August. Last year, due to Covid-19 restrictions, the sale was
accessible online for the first time and offered a ‘click and deliver’ service to purchasers.
A total of 58 rams averaged £1,500/head.
“Although all three flocks could successfully lamb outdoors, here we do it inside to ease the detailed recording we want for the flocks,”
David says: “There is no doubt performance recording has dramatically improved our sheep, but we could not
keep making progress if we did not cull those ewes not doing their job.
“I find it most effective to make that decision at lambing time. The most efficient flock is one which keeps on
culling, something I learned while in New Zealand.”
Over the years, Huish Poll Dorsets have also been exported to France, Belgium and Eastern Europe, while Exlanas have gone to Switzerland.
“We do not run the business on these sales, but use those opportunities to fund something else,” says David.
As a result, Richard, a former National Sheep Association next generation ambassador, and his fiancee, Alice, have recently set up Huish Meat, an online boxed lamb business which is selling nationally.
And David’s latest interest could be an ideal complement to this diversification.
He says: “In 2019, I was in Australia sourcing Poll Dorset semen and came across the Australian White breed of sheep at the Tattykeel station.
“Its meat has been described as the lamb equivalent of Waygu beef because of its dynamic eating qualities.”