British ‘Shades of Sheep’

British sheep farming is interesting to say the least. There is an immense amount of diversity with about 75 breeds ( both introduced and local), a stratified farming system, (hill, midland and lowland breeds) an enormous amount of history and tradition and a good bit of industry progress as well.

Although EBV’s (estimated breeding values) are only used on 7% of the UK sheep, this 7% are not to be missed. They have worked out that improving maternal traits is 4-6 times more profitable than terminal traits. I find this extremely interesting and emphasises the importance the ewe plays in overall profitability. The Welsh family in the Scottish high country are breeding easy care sheep. This is a breed of sheep derived from a maternal Scottish blackface that now has exceptional carcase attributes. They lamb outdoors and breed animals that get in lamb, wean their lamb and have high growth rates. This family are among those setting the benchmark for the british sheep industry in my opinion.

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Another experience…..

I went to the Builth Wells Ram sale in Wales. With over 5000 rams offered across all breeds, only an observed small percentage were sold with any sort of breeding value information. I’m not sure about you, but I have to question when told horn placement, long ears and pink faces mean the rams were ‘better doing’ rams.

The preparation that went into these rams was nothing to sneeze at as obviously the breeders take an immense amount of pleasure preparing them for the show/sale. However, being a commercial producer that needs farming to be a viable business, the colour dipping, extreme clipping, naivety to grass and hoof paint are not traits that my lambs or replacement stock will benefit from! I’d be more interested in how the maternal and terminal genetic potential will impact my key profit drivers.

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With the geography and structure of the British sheep industry, the show or central selling centres are no doubt the best way to sell Rams. How good would these rams look if they had breeding values attached to them?? What an opportunity!

Most of the farms I visited throughout the UK were top farms both in the beef and sheep sectors. Whatever the enterprise, the concepts were the same on these farms – measure your key profit drivers and make decisions around maximising them based on the information that is collected. Match your land to your industry and don’t just do things because ‘that’s whats always been done in this area’.

A very interesting young couple in Wales, Nick and Francis Davies, have converted their sheep farm to a dairy farm. It is the only dairy farm in the area for miles and the neighbours all think they are nuts! They changed not because the sheep were not going well, but because they wanted to ‘do something’. The climate and soil suited dairy so they didn’t know why it was not done in the area other than because “it’s a sheep area”.

I draw so much inspiration from people like this as it not only shows an immense amount of courage, it shows that there are always ways to do things better. I don’t think farming is a recipe and we need to continue to look outside the box. Will we ever maximise our own potential, the industries potential or the potential of our businesses if we don’t?

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South Africa – the big five!

Merino, Dohne, Dorper, SAMM and Dormer………… They have got it all wrong on the postcards!!!

Selecting an animal on its suitability to the environment was one of the biggest trends I picked up from my time in South Africa. ‘They need to be robust and fit’ – was a repetitive statement.

Fitness – the ability of an animal to produce viable offspring capable of surviving to the next generation – Charles Darwin

Of the ‘big five’ sheep breeds, none of them are particularly known as a maternal breed. This means a lot of emphasis is placed on the ‘fitness’ of the animal and genetic values such as NLW (number lambs weaned) and EPI (ewe production Index) are used to select rams with a higher ‘potential’ for fertility.

However, there is again a huge range in farming practices, particularly when looking at ram breeding. From selling rams at shows on visual appearance only to selling rams on full genetic breeding values and pedigree including dexterity testing all rams. I found this interesting and since they started, cull almost no rams out now on dexterity. ‘It doesn’t matter how good the genetics are if they can’t pass them on’ – Swarco Dohnes.

Interestingly, the South Africans have a breeding value for phenotype or constitution. Even more interestingly, one one farm we went to, the animals that seem to be what they are looking for phenotypically, negatively correlates to fertility. They believe it is because the natural shape has been bred out of the animal in an aid to breed a ‘well balanced’ animal with a good carcase.

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Dormer Rams (SAMM Dorset Horn cross) – Kinko Domers, Swellendam, Western Cape

“nature didn’t have economics in mind” – a great quote by one of the merino breeders I met with. Although ‘balance’ for marketing purposes is important, it was interesting to consider the effect it may be having on the animals ‘fitness’.

I think I’ll leave you to contemplate the wool:meat ratio. The Dohne association and in particular Cameron McMaster who is a Dohne Consultant, says that CFW (clean fleece weight) should be 7% maximum of body weight at ‘yearling’ age. He says if income from wool is more than 30% of the gross margin, reproduction is being compromised. I found this very interesting and comes back to breeding a ‘fit’ animal that can reproduce and raise its offspring. I am interested in finding out more about this concept.

I was very impressed with the work being done in South Africa, a lot we can learn from.

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Dohne Rams – Swarco Dohnes, Calendon, Western Cape.

The sheep industry – up and up!!

I can’t think of a better industry to be in at the moment than the sheep industry. The more I learn, the more I want to learn. There is so much potential left in sheep, and this excites me every day. Imagine getting up and not wanting to go to work!!??……….

As a commercial producer, I think it is important we keep up with the latest knowledge, technology and genetic measurements (ASBV’s) as much as the studs do. If we don’t, the studs will be reluctant to change due to “lack of demand from the clients”. And if we rely on progress to start with the studs, we are relying on them to potentially try and sell something that there is no demand for – and why would they do that?? Demand leads to supply.

I’ve mentioned before that the variation in my flock is a huge point of interest for me. If I look at the average production figures year on year, it says to me that half of my ewes are below average! There will always be an average for sure, and there will always be animals that sit below that average…….this is just the thing that creates the constant drive to want to improve my ewe flock.

As an aid to start identifying these ewes, I want to understand more what the maternal influence is over the lambs born. If half the genetics comes from the ewe and half the ram, what other impact does the ewe actually give to the lamb expressing its genetics to their potential in terms of her direct relationship with her offspring?

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Getting the ewes in for lamb marking last month, there is a stark difference between mothering ability from those that will stand up the dog, to those just want out….. and fast!! And what about udder size and milk production – does this influence the lamb reaching its genetic potential? Or the ewes condition score, or whether she was a single or twin lamb herself??

This year I am attempting to mother up 400 ewes (1st and 2nd lambers) with 670 lambs using the Pedigree Match Maker system. This is a system that uses RFID ear tags that are in the ewes and lambs and by a repetition of close association past a scanner, we can identify which lambs belong too which ewes. I think it is important technology like this is usable commercially and on a large scale. If I can match up this many this year, I will do a larger number next year. It may be that we only need to match ewes in their first year to get an idea of what their genetic potential is if the traits measured are also repeatable.

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I am super Syked about the information this could potentially give us in terms of creating selection pressure and lifting the bar on the flock average as well as identifying those flying under the line. The fact that it can all be done electronically and information can flow from generation to generation, the animals become an individual by default with some meaningful information associated with them.

The information I want to get a better understand of is ewe efficiency. So kg of lamb weaned per ewe is of interest. The measures I will take are ewe live weight and condition at weaning, lamb weaning weight, lamb growth rate post weaning and ewe condition change and scanning rate the following year. A link back to sire group will help determine what my genetic progress is.

Imagine if we could then get carcase traits and eating quality figures back from the abattoir on top of this! It would enable better and more informed decisions to be made on farm by simply sorting and drafting on objective information. When wool is added to the mix – it will create an even bigger picture which is the benefit of a wool/meat sheep combined in the one animal!

As I prepare to head to South Africa, UK, Ireland, and Denmark in a few days, I am really looking forward to the information I will gather from both the sheep industry and other industries.

Will keep you posted!!