Performance recording can play a vital role in breeding strategy. Farmers Guardian spoke to two sheep farmers to see how and why they use the tool in their flocks.
In an era where science and technology dominates daily life, it is strange to think that in the sheep industry performance recording is still regarded as Marmite – farmers either love it or hate it.
However, for Edward Collins, who runs pedigree Lleyn and Blue Texel sheep at Bearwood Farm just outside of Leominster, Herefordshire, it is the key to profitability and efficient sheep production.
“I was first introduced to recording from a young age when my family used to record North Country Mules through the MLC system. We used to record birth weights and key stage weights and manage according to those results,” he says.
Having started a flock of Lleyns in 1998 he immediately kicked off where his father began and started recording again.
“I run an incredibly simple system, I do not believe in making work for myself as it is just me who runs the flock with occasional support at lambing time.”
Mr Collins starts by recording birth weights, which for the Lleyns he aims for an average birth weight of 4.5kg, with the Blue Texels coming in a little shy of that.
Lambs are then weighed at eight weeks old when they average 25-30kg and again the Blue Texels come in a little lighter. Anything not hitting that is not retained for breeding and the dams of those poorer performers are analysed further and possibly removed from the flock.
I am hard on culling, focusing hard on legs, feet, udders and mouths,” he adds.
All ewes are weighed as well as lambs at weaning at 14-16 weeks of age and ideally Mr Collins’ optimum is a 65-70kg Lleyn ewe with a pair of 30-35kg lambs at foot at weaning.
“The mature body weight of the Blue Texel is lighter than that so all throughout I expect lighter weights for these, but the performance is on par with the Lleyns.
"When a ewe is producing her liveweight in weaned lambs she is at optimum performance. A good set of twins would be 35-38kg per lamb, with singles over 40kg at weaning.” he adds.
At least 50 per cent of the flock would be hitting this target. A further weight will be taken at 21 weeks when scanning for back fat and muscle depth as well, he adds.
Feed blocks are offered pre- and post-lambing alongside good quality round bale haylage.
“I am a huge fan of feed blocks as ewes tend to nibble on them as and when required rather than rush to feed once-a-day which can cause miss-mothering when lambs are young. As lambs mature they also pick at the blocks as well which reduces the need for added creep feed.
“In the horrific late winter weather I lost just one lamb and I put that down to the fact ewes had a consistent provision of energy as and when required. The feed blocks are also far more labour efficient as I am not carting feed to ewes at grass once- or twice-a-day,” he adds.
Mr Collins also prefers to let ewe lambs grow on naturally with them being overwintered and those for sale being offered as yearlings. At this point the yearling females would be weighed at 18 months old as it provides a good indication of mature flock weight and year-on-year the improvements have been significant due to a hard culling policy.
Male lambs are kept entire with the top 10 per cent ranked on performance offered for sale privately off farm and the remainder being sold liveweight as store or finished lambs at Hereford Livestock Market.
And while performance recording is as much a routine management task on the farm as anything else, Mr Collins stresses the eye must come first.
“First and foremost, I rely on a physical analysis for structural correctness and whether I like the sheep in the first place.
"I make an initial draw based on that then follow up with performance data to enhance my decision. The two have to go hand-in-hand, I have seen high index rams with all the figures, but no structure do a lot of damage in flocks of different breeds and I will not substitute structure for figures at any cost.”
Currently the flock numbers 220 adult Lleyn ewes, with 110 replacements running alongside and a further 25 ram lambs to go through winter. Additional to that is a flock of 25 commercially managed Blue Texel ewes which is in the process of expanding up to 50 ewes.
“I established the Blue Texels in 2011 with females bought from David Alexander’s Millside flock and rams purchased from Sue Andrews’ Miserden flock. While they were originally bought for my children, I have soon come to realise their commercial attributes,” says Mr Collins.
“They are great mothers, easy lambing and with good milk and the lamb, whether kept pure or crossed with the Lleyn, has good commercial value.
"There are only a handful of flocks recording Blue Texels, so data correlation has been slow but we are improving our findings all the time. I follow the same process with the Blues as I do the Lleyns; there is no special treatment and feedback from my commercial ram buying customers is positive.”
Mr Collins feels the potential for the Blue Texel breed is huge.
“They are the perfect half-way house between a Texel and a Beltex, having the length, but without too much bone with cross-bred lambs being capable of producing U and E-grade carcasses. However, it is vital the breed retains length as it is the one constant driver with my commercial customers,” he adds.
Alongside the performance recording, Mr Collins is currently carrying out a worm resistance trial in his flock using a salvia swab test.
Research carried out by Prof Mike Stear at Glasgow Vet School has shown that antibody responses against the larval stage of teladorsagia circumcincta, an important member of the strongyles roundworm family, are an important marker of host response to infection.
Mucosal immunoglobulin antibody (IgA) levels have been shown to regulate worm growth and fecundity. Explaining the work further, Mr Collins says the parasite specific plasma IgA has been compared with fecal egg count as an indicator of resistance to infection showing that high levels of IgA reduced worm growth and fecundity and, therefore, decrease egg output.
“It is hoped that as the trial develops I will have a better understanding of which ewes are genetically more resistant to worm burdens.”
This is just another tool in Mr Collins’ armoury of information for his customers.
“I may be a relatively small-scale breeder compared to the more commercial producers, but for those coming on-farm to purchase sheep I am doing my best to provide them with the right sheep fit for purpose both under the skin and in front of the eye."
Developing a high index performance recorded flock within the Hampshire Down breed’s top 10 per cent is among Austyn Chapman and Nikki Wadkins’ key goals for their 13-ewe pedigree Eppleby flock which they established four years ago on their North Yorkshire holding.
Mr Chapman, who manages the flock on eight hectares (20 acres) of mainly rented grazing near Richmond, says: “While we run a relatively small flock, we are focused on establishing a commercially viable enterprise breeding high index Hampshire Down rams for both pedigree breeders and commercial farmers; it is the way to go.
“Hampshire Down-sired lambs have a natural ability to fast finish, however it is the higher genetic merit-bred rams that the commercial man is looking for; these rams will be able to leave lambs with higher yields or lean meat.
“Overall, the lambs will be more efficient – they will reach target weight earlier freeing up grass for the rest of the flock, which is important in summers like this one, they will hit an earlier market and reduce inputs, including labour and vet and med.
“Our latest crop of lambs is sired by Court General, a ram within the breed’s top 5 per cent of performance and those which have not been retained for replacement purposes have finished to 20kg target weight within 13 to 14 weeks. We are really pleased with them.”
Mr Chapman, 27, works full-time contract farming and says the opportunity to farm in his own right is his ultimate ambition, and establishing a sheep enterprise is providing the first rung on the ladder.
“My dad farmed sheep and grandfather had a small holding, so you could say it is in the blood.
“The Hampshire Downs all started when I saw some while out contracting and I thought they looked smart sheep. We then decided to establish our own flock, we went to the Great Yorkshire Show and agreed there and then to select which breed to go for.”
The couple invested in their first Hampshire Down ram and shearling ewes in 2014 and the rest is history.
“With hindsight, we went in to breeding pedigree sheep blind. From the outset, we agreed our sheep have to look good – they have to stand well and have a quality carcase, however we did not know very much about performance recording and the resulting indexes,” he explains.
“As time has gone on, I have got a better understanding of what they mean and in 2017 we signed up to Signet Performance Recording to help us identify sheep with superior breeding potential. I now realise that performance trait data is equally important to looks since it reflects the genetic merit of each animal and its ability to pass on that value to its progeny.”
Mr Chapman says their 2017 investment in Court General, one of the Hampshire Down rams used within the RamCompare project, should quickly bring a major lift.
“I had already invested in some ewes in-lamb to him, those lambs grew really well and that is continuing to prove to be the case. Our key selection criteria are growth and carcase quality, and this ram is up there for those specific traits, he is in the breed’s top 1 per cent for eight week and scan weights and muscle depth EBVs.”