There is reluctance among hill sheep producers to embrace performance recording and its benefits. Chloe Palmer speaks to experts to hear about the issues and potential solutions.
Lowland sheep producers have formally performance recorded for almost three decades and have reaped the benefits.
In spite of this, the practice has received very limited uptake in the hill sector.
AHDB Beef and Lamb breeding services manager Sam Boon believes the lack of popularity of performance recording in the hill sector is principally down to the market.
He says: “If there was a premium for recorded hill breeding stock, it would encourage hill producers to record. Currently, many farmers still make purchase decisions about breeding rams and ewes based on appearance.”
Maternal traits are more important to hill producers and it takes longer and is more complicated to identify and select for these within a flock compared to carcase traits, says Mr Boon.
He says: “There are no instant rewards when recording to improve maternal traits. It can take a minimum of three to four years. There is also lower genetic heritability associated with maternal traits compared to carcase traits.
“Collating data takes longer, as only females are relevant. There is also the delay of at least two years before first lambing.”
Trials involving hill breeds initially proved successful, as farmers understood data and how it could be used.
Mr Boon says: “The system was acknowledged to be working, but because the wider farming community was not prepared to invest in recorded animals, the number of producers involved dwindled.
“If we run a similar initiative in future, we must help breeders with their marketing to promote the benefits of recorded animals.”
Scotland’s Rural College (SRUC) has carried out research on the impact of recording on flock performance since 1999 and results are favourable.
Dr Ann McLaren of the SRUC hill and mountain research centre, Kirkton Farm, Crianlarich, says: “We have managed a line of high index and average index Scottish Blackface sheep together at Kirkton Farm and, over a period of 12 years, we selected animals on the basis of a multi-trait index.
“Selection line lambs were on average 2.25kg heavier at weaning, meaning higher carcase weights were finished or lambs finished more quickly. There was also a slight increase in the number of lambs reared successfully.”
Dr McLaren says although mature ewe weight increased over the period of the trial, it was a smaller proportionate increase compared to lamb weights.
She says this was due to a negative weighting applied to mature size in the index to avoid selecting for an overly large ewe with a higher maintenance requirement.
Selecting for higher litter size would be counter-productive in an upland or hill-type situation, so Dr McLaren says fertility traits were not pushed too far.
Improving carcase composition traits, such as ultrasound muscle and fat depths, carcase fat and conformation grades, remained similar between lines and Dr McLaren says there is a good reason for this.
She says: “Carcase traits tend to be unfavourably genetically correlated to maternal traits, so we have applied only limited selection for these.”
Selecting for maternal traits has not necessitated adoption of the hill index for all breeders.
James Metcalfe runs a flock of 55 pedigree North Country Cheviot ewes at his farm at Edale in the Peak District.
He started out using Signet, but has since moved to his own simpler system.
He says: “I bought a small number of performance recorded ewes six years ago and a ram with good figures. I registered with Signet and began recording using their hill index.
“Although I was achieving good weaning weights, I found the index was favouring bigger ewes producing fast growing lambs which are not necessarily suited to this farm.”
Mr Metcalfe recognises the use of the hill index can assist in improving hill flocks, but says there are several barriers limiting uptake, meaning there is no longer a critical mass of Cheviot breeders willing to pay for it.
He says: “Nobody asks for figures because they are still basing their decision on appearances and type, so the recording does not bring money back to the farm.”
Rod McKenzie, president of the North Country Cheviot Society, has used the hill index for many years and now uses his own system, and is entirely convinced of the value of performance recording.
He says: “We have been recording our own flocks now for 15 years and, even after just four years, birth weights were consistently higher and this pattern continued to eight-week and 21-week weights.”
Mr McKenzie has observed practical benefits from recording and selecting on the basis of the data.
“There is noticeably less work in the lambing shed and we seem to have fewer unexplained losses.
“By recording, we have reduced the difference between the number of lambs scanned and those sold and it must be down to improved genetics.”
An unexpected gain for the business has been a reduction in concentrate usage of 14 per cent in the last five years and Mr McKenzie attributes this to recording.
Sam Boon believes there is scope to use recording to improve many aspects of flock performance.
“We are looking at two new breeding values in our maternal indices. We are seeking to improve lamb survival rates and increase ewe longevity by selecting breed lines which carry these traits.”
The hill index has been designed to enhance overall productivity of hill ewes by improving several traits simultaneously; most significantly the number of lambs successfully reared.
Using the index to choose female replacements will result in an increase in ewe mature weight, maternal ability, longevity and the number of lambs reared to weaning.
Lamb growth rates will increase, resulting in lambs with heavier carcase weights at a constant age. Most estimated breeding values (EBVs) are used to calculate the hill index.
Sam Wharry farms 200 hectares (500 acres) of in-bye grassland and rough grazing plus 65ha (160 acres) of common grazing in Harphall, Carnlough, southern Glens of Antrim. He runs 650 Scottish Blackface and cross-bred ewes and 200 dry hoggets.
Mr Wharry first began performance recording in 1997 and this coincided with his observation his sheep were becoming too big and ‘slack’, and lacking mothering ability.
He says: “For the first few years we recorded but did not use the information. This was probably no bad thing, as over there was a big increase in accuracy as we built up the figures. After six years, we began looking at maternal traits.”
He used the data to do an initial scan of the ewe lambs to see which had the best figures, having a ‘better look’ at those which looked good on paper.
He says: “We place particular emphasis on the maternal estimated breed values [EBV] and eight-week and scan weight EBVs. We are looking for sheep which are at least in the top 10 per cent of the breed for these traits, as this will allow us to breed ewes which will be good mothers and produce high growth rate lambs.
“Muscle depth must be above average because muscle is important for conformation in wether lambs and as a store of energy to carry ewes through winter. We do not want litter size to get too high as the last thing I want is triplets, but lower figures can show a tendency for too many barren ewes.”
Mr Wharry is optimistic about future technological developments.
He says: “We use electronic identification and a hand-held device to record which makes the physical process of recording so much easier.
“Genomic recording will be the next development and, if we can use DNA samples to evaluate and select traits we are looking for, this will bring rapid progress.
“The genetic data available at the moment is not sufficiently comprehensive yet to allow us to do this, but I think it will come.”
Mr Wharry points to the use of genomics as a solution to one of the big problems with performance recording.
“The biggest practical problem for hill farmers who wish to record is single male matings, because it is difficult to find several separate enclosures to run single rams with groups of ewes.
“With genomics, this would no longer be necessary, as it would be possible to identify the sire afterwards by DNA sampling.”
Convincing one of the most traditional farming groups in the country of the value of new developments will be a challenge, Mr Wharry says.
“Hill farming is steeped in tradition and a lot of the things we do are for a good reason. But we should make use of technology if it is there.
“We are not doing anything our grandfathers were not doing 50 years ago, but now we have a computer to help us. Recording simply puts a numerical value on better sheep.”