3 November 1995


Six progressive Berrichon du Cher breeders are asking Signet to tailor its Sheepbreeder service. They want to scan backfat and eye muscle at 18 weeks, not 21 weeks, and incorporate conformation and breed type in the final index – at a cost they can afford. John Burns reports

SIX BERRICHON du Cher sheep breeders have thrown down a challenge to livestock recording and improvement group Signet.

The Berrichon breeders are keen to identify top bloodlines to improve the breed, as well as their own flocks.

"We need to identify sheep with a good genetic background as well as being good themselves," says breed chairman Mr Yeo. "We want a breeding index that takes into account the genetic merit of a sheeps ancestors and progeny, as well as its own performance."

A year ago the six breeders set up an ambitious breed advancement scheme.

"One of the main reasons we didnt use MLC (or Signet as it is now) was cost," says Mr Yeo. "All our flocks are fairly small and it would have cost each of us £300-£400 to use the MLCs Sheep-breeder scheme and scanning services.

"It also failed to offer what we wanted – that was to scan backfat and eye muscle at 18 weeks, not 20 or 21. We also wanted detail on each animals teeth, legs, wool, gigot, length, general conformation and breed character."

Each member of the group provided 10 ewes and put them to two of the five rams the group had chosen to start the programme. The five rams were also used (by AI) on two flocks of commercial ewes, to secure growth rate and carcass information.

Lambs were weighed at eight weeks and 18 weeks, when they were also scanned.

Each pure-bred lamb was assessed by its breeder and given scores of one to five for each of the above traits.

Those scores and the weights and scan measurements were weighted and an index produced for each lamb. A computer expert developed a program and analysed the data.

The commercial progeny test provided little useful information because most of the lambs were sold live, with no means of obtaining carcass weights and grades. Measures are being taken to avoid that happening next year.

Mr Yeo is fully aware of the limitations of their results so far and believes it would be better to have independent authentication. But the Berrichon group is eager to make progress and feels its ambitions are little different from those of most other forward-looking sheep breeders.

Hence Mr Yeo and his fellow breeders have thrown down the challenge to Signet to provide what they and other breeders want at a cost they can afford.

Signet has accepted the challenge. General manager John Southgate says: "I am confident that if we discuss their needs with this group, we will be able to meet them at a cost they can afford.

"They are right to want to take into account a rams ancestors and progeny and Signet now has the technique to do that. It was developed for use in the reference sire work and this year has been tested in our Sheepbreeder flocks -though the results are only relevant within flocks in this case. Next year it will be used as standard in those flocks."

Mr Southgate adds: "We can scan at 18 weeks and record all the traits the Berrichon group wants. I am prepared to train technicians to score animals in the way the group wants it done and we can store and analyse the data for them. But we would need to discuss how many years they should record before the analysis would be meaningful.

"One of Signets strengths is its expertise in creating indexes which help breeders make commercially correct decisions. The weightings given to each recorded trait are supported by scientific research."

Mr Yeo points out that there are some good sheep in the Berrichon scheme. The 18-week weights ranged from 26kg to 53kg and eye muscle from 20mm to 37mm. Back-fats varied from 1mm to 4mm and visual assessment score totals ranged from 46 to 74. Overall indexes ranged from 86 to 286.

For comparison, at this years Devon County Show the ram lambs in the Signet class (there were no Berrichons) had eye muscles from 28mm to 39mm and backfats from 2mm to 5.7mm. All the eye muscles of 35mm and above had at least 4mm of fat. In the Berrichon private tests there was a lamb with 37mm eye muscle and only 2.0mm fat.

"Bearing in mind that only the top 25% of lambs are allowed in the Signet show classes, I think our lambs look pretty good alongside them," says Mr Yeo.

In the Berrichon test there was considerable difference in performance of each rams progeny between flocks. Some 60% of the groups test lambs had over 30mm eye muscle at 18 weeks and the average was 31.1mm. Some 80% had 2mm fat or less and about half of the test crop grew at 400g (14oz) a day or more up to eight weeks of age. &#42