Composite breeds have been gaining ground in the southern hemisphere sheep industry for the past 15 years, with breeders aiming to combine the best bits of a number of breeds in one.

And, says a Bucks farmer, the concept and indeed the sheep, have the potential to make a huge impact in the UK, too.

Northall, Dunstable-based Robert Pratt believes the sheep born on his farm in the past month which were imported as embryos last autumn are the future of UK maternal and terminal breed production.

“We have brought in the Highlander, a mix of Finn, Romney and Texel bloodlines, and the Primera, a mix of Suffolk, Poll Dorset and White Suffolk genetics from Rissington Breedline in New Zealand.

The Highlander is the maternal composite, while the Primera is the terminal sire line.”

These lines have been developed to maximise productivity from the tightly managed grass-based systems which predominate in New Zealand and which Mr Pratt believes will form the basis of UK sheep farming in years to come.

From a UK aspect Mr Pratt believes the Highlander could come to dominate the maternal sire trade as heavily as the Bluefaced Leicester does at present.

“We’re aiming for a crossbred ewe capable of weaning its own bodyweight in lambs every year while also leaving an improved whether lamb for the prime lamb trade.”

Having implanted 360 Highlander and 140 Primera embryos in Lleyn ewes last autumn, the lambs, born in late March and early April are beginning to show their mettle, with the two types starting to demonstrate their genetic ancestry.

Mr Pratt says the initial signs are encouraging, but accepts the UK sheep industry may not yet be ready for such a bold and dramatic move away from the status quo.

“But, hopefully, the progressive sheep farmers will recognise the advantages these sheep offer and pick up on the opportunity available.

Performance

With an ongoing involvement with sire referencing schemes with Suffolks and Charolais and Ile de France, Mr Pratt is adamant that the composites must be able to perform at similar levels to the flocks already on the farm.

“We need to ensure they are able to match and, hopefully, better our flocks.”

But, in keeping with the principles of composite breeding, Mr Pratt and Rissington Breedline are considering whether there may be a place for introducing genetics from UK animals into either type.

“It is quite possible the Primera may benefit from introducing UK terminal sire breed genetics to improve either muscling or growth rates, but until we have compared their performance to our other flocks it will be difficult to tell.”

In a bid to aid this comparison more than 100 Charolais, Suffolk and Ile de France ewes were inseminated with Primera semen.

“This will enable us to compare the purebred Primera to Primera crosses and purebred UK stock.

And we have inseminated 100 Texel ewes with semen from two of the top maternal EBV-rated Lleyn rams in the UK to compare with the Highlander.”

But data from New Zealand suggest Rissington stock will be more than capable of matching UK animals.

“Average growth rates are about 400g a day off grass and the aim here will be to have lambs born in April and sold by Christmas.”

Both types should also be capable of breeding as lambs.

“Rissington aims to tup ewe lambs as long as they weigh 45kg or more and the same is true of ram lambs, which they run at one ram to 80 ewes.”

Backing for the project has come from both Marks and Spencer and its supplier Dawn Meats, with the intention being for all lambs supplied to Marks and Spencer to be sired by Primera tups and out of Highlander ewes.

This, with an agreement with Rissington Breedline for New Zealand lambs supplied to the store to be sired by Primera rams and out of Highlander ewes to ensure product consistency, says Marks and Spencer’s head of agriculture Rob Cumine.

Looking to the future, Mr Pratt says he would like to establish a number of sub-nucleus flocks around the UK capable of supplying rams of both lines to commercial farmers supplying Marks and Spencer.

“But as the importer our company, Breeding Vision, will retain control of breeding objectives and will be the source of new genetics for these flocks.

“We will be able to import new genetics from New Zealand to match the needs of the retailer and farmer, while also capitalising on the continuing progress of the New Zealand breeding programme,” he adds.

But while his are the only Highlanders and Primeras in the UK, and hence numbers are limited, Mr Pratt is conscious of the need to maintain quality and intends to cull the bottom 25% of lambs to ensure only the best are retained for breeding.