Using high index terminal sires can significantly boost physical and financial performance of upland prime lamb producing flocks.

In 2005 the 150 Beulah x Suffolk ewes involved in an upland sheep improvement project produced 77.9kg/ha of extra lamb liveweight following the purchase of high index Texel tups.

The flock is being monitored as part of the Welsh Assembly’s Farming Connect initiative, which aims to improve the incomes of Welsh family farmers.

Total lamb liveweight sold from ewes, which were run on a 12ha (30-acre) farmlet at the Institute of Grassland and Environmental Research’s Bronydd Mawr facility, Sennybridge, Powys, increased by 934.8kg to 9266.4kg.

Lambs also finished earlier and 84% met the grading specification of the premium-paying Waitrose farm assured lamb purchasing scheme, which was 4% more than the year before.

Conformation

To do this lambs had to weigh 14.5-21.5kg and classify E, U and R for conformation.

Last year the number of E and U grades was up from 8% to 30%, and only 6% graded O compared with 8% in 2004.

A total of 139 lambs graded R3L compared with 105 in 2004.

But adverse seasonal market conditions pushed down the year-on-year average return by 17p/kg, so the financial gain from using better tups was worth only 38p a lamb.

This was disappointing, but without higher performance levels the business would have taken a serious economic step backwards, says Charlie Morgan, the IGER consultant running the project.

“I suspect many farmers who already had high costs/kg of lamb liveweight gain and had not taken steps to boost output and lamb quality saw their margins fall.”

Results showed the challenge producers faced when designing a profitable lamb production system under decoupled conditions.

Where land area was limited, as it was for the trial flock, the idea of cutting output by significantly reducing input costs was not an option.

“It is necessary to improve lamb quality and make the most efficient use of grass and clover, which remain the cheapest sources of feed.

“To do this a producer has to concentrate on getting soil nutrients, sward composition and grazing management right.

There is no point improving the potential growth rate and carcass quality of lambs unless there is enough feed for them to express that potential.”

Lambing started on 7 March last year and no concentrate was fed after turnout.

The first lambs were sold on 8 June and 216 lambs were marketed finished by 21 October.

Only one lamb was sold as a store.

The average lamb weighed 42.9kg on the hoof – 3.7kg more than in 2004 – and 18.1kg dead – an increase of 1.2kg a head.

“It is clear combining best practice principles of good soil nutrient management, high quality grass clover swards efficiently used, the potential of high indexed recorded tups can be realised through significantly increasing output,” Mr Morgan adds.

Buying better rams need not cost a lot of extra money.

He had approached one breeder with a good reputation and was offered a choice of 30 tups.

A shortlist was drawn up by eye, though finer breed points were not taken into account.

Selection

From this he selected one rather plain ram with an index of 218, a well-muscled tup with an index of 243 and one whose excellent growth rate and muscularity gave it an index of 272.

They cost an average of £350 a head.

Each was used on 50 ewes and while all three outperformed previously used non-recorded rams, there were no perceivable differences in progeny quality.

“The really important thing is to use the information available about estimated breeding values when selecting rams to achieve a farm’s performance targets.”

At the same time producers should exploit new grass and clover varieties and apply the findings of work done on grazing systems.

bobdavies@agrinews.fsnet.co.uk