Easy Cares taking sheep producers back to the future
By Robert DaviesWales correspondent
WOOL is the weed of efficient lamb production, according to a Welsh producer who has spent three decades developing the Easy Care sheep breed.
Iolo Owen managed to keep only 150 of the 2000 hybrid ewes he ran at Glantraeth, Bodorgan, after the massive firebreak cull in south Anglesey. But he now says foot-and-mouth has given him new targets.
Fortunately, his son Richard, who farms independently outside the cull area, also runs a large flock of Easy Care ewes, which will allow the hybrids development to continue.
"The cull has left me with many customers for ewes that I cannot supply and has probably set back the spread of the breed by seven years," says Mr Owen.
"But having bred out wool and horns, I see losing most of my ewes as an opportunity to start detailed recording of a small number of ewe families to further improve performance and carcass traits."
Most lambs from the original flock weighed about 21kg on the hook and graded U or R for conformation. Now the aim will be to produce more Es – as long as this does not result in lambing problems, he says.
"Any ewe which fails to lamb easily outside does not get a second chance. At 70 years old, I could manage 2000 ewes with just an ATV, but it needs a lot of self-discipline to only interfere with lambing ewes when it is unavoidable."
Easy Care sheep could help many units remain viable with less labour/ewe, he adds. "Flocks are getting bigger and skilled labour is becoming increasingly scarce and expensive. Many more people will find themselves responsible for extra sheep. They will have to accept that, in retail terms, they cannot run a supermarket with corner shop attitudes."
Mr Owen believes that low returns for wool will change the long-held views of expanding commercial lamb finishers.
He claims that 80% of shepherding costs are attributable to wool. Getting rid of it reduces external parasite problems and eliminates shearing, dagging, crutching and cleaning bellies before sending sheep for slaughter.
Apart from occasional throwbacks, his Easy Care sheep have very short, hairy coats. The hybrid breed is based mainly on bloodlines in his multi-championship winning 40-ewe Gedwydd flock of Wiltshire Horns, and in stock bought from several Nelson type Welsh Mountain flocks. A number of terminal sire breeds have also contributed genes.
Close monitoring and using his intimate knowledge of the characteristics of different families within the original flock when matching ewes and sires, enabled him to keep the hybrid stable. Others who have bought stock from Glantraeth have done the same.
"Ewes lamb easily, and hybrid vigour ensures lambs are lively. Their hairy coats protect them from the cold, under lowland conditions, even in a windy place like Anglesey. We regularly reared 1.7 lambs/ewe tupped and a growth rate of 0.45kg/day is achievable on grass."
Mr Owen also sets great store by meat taste. The eating quality of lambs he produces, and of mature beef from his 300 Welsh Black and Murray Grey sucklers, is tested weekly in the restaurant run by his family since 1974.
"Lowland sheep producers will have to cut production costs drastically to stay competitive. Inputs linked to wool produce only 3-4% of gross flock income. I expect many more producers will follow my example and start regarding wool as the equivalent of a weed."
"Before man interfered with nature and started breeding for wool, most sheep had coats like my Easy Care breed. All I have done is to turn the clock back, while retaining prolificacy, ease of lambing, mothering ability and foraging capability." *
• Stable hybrid developed.
• No wool to shear.
• Lamb outside, alone.