Pedigree sheep breeders must switch to producing shearlings instead of ram lambs, make performance data their main selection criteria and engage directly with their customers to survive.

Speaking at last week’s Suffolk Sheep Society conference, Penrith, New Zealand sheep breeder Murray Rohloff, who runs 3500 ewes and breeds rams used across 0.5m ewes, urged pedigree breeders to wake up to the challenges of a sheep sector without subsidy.

He told breeders that, as they sold most of their rams to commercial producers, who wanted to ensure maximum profit from prime lambs, they had no alternative but to embrace performance recording.

“But raw data is useless to ram buyers unless they understand the logic of sire selection using performance recording.

However, you can be certain once buyers take the quantum leap they will never revert back to selecting rams visually.

“For pedigree breeders, survival is about breeding rams for your customers’ future profits and not simply winning prizes at shows.”

But Worcs-based breeder John Sinnett challenged his opinions.

He said UK breeders had ample data to help commercial ram buyers, but it wasn’t wanted.

Mr Rohloff amazed the audience when he declared his ram:ewe ratio was 1:150.

And while UK sheep producers are not ready for such a huge increase, independent sheep consultant Lesley Stubbings said there was potential to increase on the most popular ratio of 1:40.

This could significantly reduce lamb production costs, but it must be carefully underpinned by a new approach to ram management.

“First, we need to question the commercial use of ram lambs.

Commercial buyers prefer shearlings.

Breeders must start re-thinking their systems to produce more naturally reared rams which are not being pushed for sale as lambs.

“Rams are not lasting long enough and that is adding to commercial flock costs.

Ram lambs are pushed too hard on concentrates and then can’t thrive when managed on a grass system.”

Ms Stubbings said Suffolk breeders needed to regain their share of the terminal sire market and that would only be achieved when they produced more rams as shearlings.

“You must remove the stigma that shearlings are last year’s second rate lambs and provide shearlings which have been grown on and will fit into management regimes which don’t demand large amounts of supplementary feed.”

But even when shearlings are produced which will do their job more effectively and for longer, their management – when run with large numbers of ewes – has to be carefully planned both before and during tupping, she added.

Mr Rohloff further challenged the floor by suggesting auctioneers undermined links between breeders and buyers.

“Auctioneers eliminate the bond of trust and mutual understanding necessary for buyers to have confidence in breeders.

Modern ram breeders must be good communicators.”

jh@jeremyhuntassociates.com