Ram breeders are constantly being criticised for feeding excessive levels of concentrate, but that is not the case for one flock, reports Jeremy Hunt.

Keeping a lid on sheep production costs by making the most of homegrown grass and forage crops is becoming a high priority for prime lamb producers.

But it’s something Meatlinc breeders Edward and Richard Vines have been doing on their Herefordshire farm for years.

And although this father-and-son team from Linton, Ross-on-Wye, believe more commercial prime lamb producers are now considering the benefits of using performance-recorded sires, many remain concerned about the high level of inputs used by some terminal sire breeders to achieve impressive growth rates and high 21-week weights.

“Unfortunately, the Meatlinc is one of the sheep industry’s best-kept secrets,” says Edward Vines, who is a member of the Meatlinc Sheep Company’s network of eight flocks, run by breeders stretching from Cornwall to Scotland.

“No other terminal sire breed has the 40 years of recording that underpins the genetics of the Meatlinc and it’s a level of superior performance that can be achieved on a natural system based on grass and forage crops.”

The Meatlinc was developed more than 40 years ago by Yorkshire farmer Henry Fell and was a front-runner in the sheep industry’s move towards performance recording of terminal sires.

Although longevity, lifetime health and vigour are traits now increasingly being factored into sire selection by commercial prime lamb producers, they have always been an important part of selection at the Vines family’s Burton Farm.

“We’ve been using the Meatlinc for more than 30 years and set up our own flock almost 20 years ago,” says Edward Vines. “Our ram buyers consistently tell us prime lambs by Meatlinc rams are finishing two weeks earlier since they switched from other terminal sire breeds.

“Selection has not simply been based on sheep with an inherent potential to demonstrate superior growth rate and carcass quality in their progeny, but sheep capable of achieving that superiority from grass and forage-based systems.

“Over the years, great progress has been made in developing muscularity traits without increasing carcass fat content or reliance on supplementary feeding to bolster growth rate figures.”

The sheep flock at Burton Farm is run alongside the arable business and makes full use of the farm’s rotation policy.

Stubble turnips, sugar beet tops and brassica crops – as well as Italian ryegrass and forage rape – are all grazed by the 300 pure Meatlinc ewes and the flock of 400 Meatlinc x Mule and Meatlinc x Welsh Half-breds that produce threequarter-bred Meatlinc prime lambs.

The pure Meatlinc flock lambs in March and is managed on grass only. No creep is fed and ram lambs are weaned at 12 weeks old.

Ram lambs are grazed on forage rape and Italian ryegrass as they head towards their 21-week scanning and weighing, while oats and vetches are an important part of the strip-grazing system used for shearling rams in their year of sale.

“All our rams are reared under commercial conditions,” explains Mr Vines. “Many terminal sire breeds have higher 21-week weights, but they are fed heavily to achieve it.

“The 21-week weight is an important consideration for prime lamb producers looking at performance-recorded rams, but our 21-week weights are achieved by natural growth and not because rams have been pushed hard.

“Our buyers openly tell us they keep coming back because of the consistency of prime lambs sired by the Meatlinc, their earlier finishing time and the fact rams last longer and stay healthier.”

He believes allowing rams to grow slowly benefits muscle development and produces rams that will still be working years after those of other breeds have had to be replaced.

The Vines keep their ram lambs outside until just before Christmas and graze them on forage rape, aftermaths and Lucerne, along with a daily feed of about 0.25kg of beet nuts.

During winter, they are housed in straw-yards and switched to a diet of chopped grass silage, maize silage, beet nuts, oats and a protein balancer. The 140 ram lambs are check-weighed and individually assessed in February.

Rams are turned out on to oats and vetches in April, with the first buyers making their selections from May onwards.

“I think we are about to see commercial buyers approach ram selection with a different set of criteria,” he adds.

“This year, value for money is going to be an important consideration and I believe we’ll see a swing towards rams with proven performance figures.”