With involvement in genetic based projects, including involvement in the creation of the Exlana breed, one Devon-based sheep producer pair have revolutionised their production system over the years. Laura Bowyer reports.
When it comes to sheep production, the philosophy of ‘genetics not cosmetics’ is deeply engrained in Peter and Louise Baber’s business, a slogan also adopted by the South West’s Sheep Improvement Group (SIG).
This outlook developed as a result of buying sheep from the sale ring which they say failed to perform and thrive on their farm’s purely grass-fed system.
Formerly a dairy genetics and health specialist with ADAS, Mr Baber began sheep farming in the late 1980s, initially running Suffolk Mules at Weir Park Farm, Christow, Exeter.
These days the Babers’ business is made up of two parts: breeding high performance terminal sires from their Suffolk, Texel and SufTex flocks; and selling maternal breeding rams and ewes from their Exlana flock.
Mr Baber says in the early 1990s they were increasingly disappointed with bought-in rams ‘melting’ as soon as they got home.
“I bought home one ram weighing 129kg and, after being at the sale all day and travelling home it lost an enormous amount of weight, became infertile and never again weighed more than 110kg,” he says.
Some 20 years ago, the Babers decided to breed their own terminal sires, opting for Suffolks and Texels. Already convinced of the merits of performance recording, they joined the breeds’ Sire Reference Schemes (SRS).
Believing in recording and describing it as a logical and methodical way to produce progressive sheep, he decided to record Suffolks and Texels and rear them entirely on grass.
Like other sheep farmers, Mr Baber wants rams with good fertility and high libido while being fit and active. However, he does not believe buying rams from show or sale rings is the right option.
Mr Baber says: “There is a huge incentive in the sale ring to compete on looks and although I admire the skill required to present animals in this manner, I believe it has no relevance to modern farming systems.
“The high level feeding of concentrates often used to produce rams big enough for the ring has been shown to damage the rumen and livers of young rams. So it is no wonder they melt when they get home and their fertility, libido and life expectancy is often severely compromised.”
In the early days, the Babers sold their Suffolk and Texel rams through the ring, but felt they could not compete on looks alone with other highly-fed and prepared rams. Mr Baber was so determined breeding figures should speak for the worth of the animal and not their looks, he opted out of the sale ring and all rams have been sold privately on-farm since 2001.
Mr Baber says: “This is a far better way to sell and we can speak informally with customers and find a ram with the estimated breeding values [EBVs] to suit their requirements. We can now produce a ram which is much fitter, with a longer and more productive working life and the best genetics for growth and carcase traits from grass.
“With the Suffolks, Texels and SufTexs [Suffolk cross Texels], Signet Performance Records place almost all our rams in the top 25 per cent of their respective breeds, and more than 75 per cent are in the top 10 per cent, rated Gold and Silver according to the AHDB Beef and Lamb Better Returns Programme. All this is done without any reliance on creep feeding”.
In the late 1990s Mr Baber was invited to sit on the Meat and Livestock Commission Sheep Breeder Advisory Group, together with David Disney, Tiverton. About this time, they discussed the possibility of creating a new terminal sire breed. But with the market already full of established pedigree and composite breeds, they decided instead to develop a ‘progressive maternal breed’.
Fuelled with enthusiasm, 17 other like-minded farmers from the South West joined them for a ‘road mapping event’. The group’s intention was to develop a sheep which was more profitable, not just more productive.
Mr Baber says: “To begin with, the discussion revolved round the usual production traits, including higher lambing percentages, faster growth and better carcases, but it then moved on to disease resistance, feed conversion efficiency and ease of management traits.
“We put a financial value on each trait, in terms of bottom line profitability rather than output. We also looked at the correlation between the various traits, which was a new concept to us. For example, a higher carcase value might improve returns, but may lead to problematic births, with labour and cost required.
“By the end of the discussion it became evident traits which made life easier and reduced labour costs had the biggest effect on profitability.”
The biggest topic for debate in the group was wool, with three schools of thought emerging.
Mr Baber recalls: “Most people considered sheep had to have wool, but accepted it was unlikely to be profitable. Some suggested increasing wool production in an attempt to make it profitable. Two members of the group, including myself, argued it would be more profitable to simply breed a wool shedding sheep.
“It became obvious the potential for labour and cost savings associated with a wool shedding breed far and away outweighed the minimal potential value of a fleece.
“It must be more logical to use a diet’s energy and protein to produce body condition in milk or growth rate in lambs than wool. In removing wool altogether, we believed fly problems would reduce, avoiding animals getting cast and eliminating the need to dag.”
During these initial SIG meetings, attended by a sheep geneticist, the benefits of selecting an existing wool shedding breed and recording them or introducing wool shedding genes in the existing wooled sheep on the breeders’ farms was discussed. The geneticist pointed out it would depend on the possible difference, and size of difference, in performance between the existing ewes on breeders’ farms and the wool shedding breed selected.
The group decided to introduce wool shedding genes into their existing breeds along with genetics from five wool shedding breeds, while recording performance from day one. Including the selection of breeds making up the original composite, along with the breeds already making up the SIG members’ farms, 14 breeds are incorporated in the SIG project flock.
In the first two to three years of the crossing programme, overall flock performance dropped according to Mr Baber, but this was because the early introductions of wool shedding genes came from unrecorded flocks.
He says: “The dip in performance was reduced to some extent because of hybrid vigour. However, after three to four years of recording we selected the highest performing ram lambs and the performance began to improve. After six years we returned to the level of performance we started with.
"Now, After 12 years of the project, the breed’s EBVs had improved. The wool shedding ability is established and the Exlana is now significantly out-performing the non-shedding foundation flock.
“We were told it would take three generations of crossing to fix the wool shedding trait. However by selecting the high performance ram lambs with good wool shedding characteristics, we were able to fix the wool shedding.”
Some of the wool shedding breeds introduced were also chosen as they were considered to be carrying genes for resistance to worms.
Several hundred individual faecal egg counts (FECs) are carried out on each SIG farm each year, testing ewe lambs and ram lambs at seven months old to calculate FEC EBVs.
In a recent trial sponsored by Sainsbury’s it was shown ewes with good FEC EBVs measured at seven months old experienced a 30-50 per cent reduction in worm egg output during the period around lambing.
Part of the breeding programme is reducing the generation interval so ewe lambs and ram lambs are bred in their first year.
Weir Park Farm’s breeding programme makes use of 30-35 rams each year over 25-28 separate tupping groups. Normally about 20 of these tupping groups are run with a home-bred ram lamb. Born in late March or early April and reared from grass, these ram lambs normally weigh 40-45kg at tupping but are capable of serving 30-50 ewes.
Mr Baber says: “In the last six years we have used more than 100 home-bred ram lambs and each one has been fertile. It is just such an enormous improvement on what we were enduring when we were buying rams from the ring.”
The Babers have been selling about 100 terminal sire rams per year and more recently started to sell surplus terminal sire ewe lambs.
“We now buy two or three rams each year which are quarantined for three to 10 months. Very early on we realised it made financial sense to rear our own female replacements.”
All ewes are out-wintered and Exlanas are lambed outside, with an intervention rate less than 1 per cent. Lambing takes place in the last week of March.
Mr Baber says: “I defy anyone who says they can look at an animal and see its genetic merit. The only way is to measure its traits.
“Although carcase quality and growth rates have high inheritability, selecting from records will be more reliable by a margin every time. It is a complete nonsense to buy stock from just looking at their physical qualities.”
There are now more than 20,000 Exlana females in the UK and the group sells 1,000 females each year.