By Robert DaviesWales correspondent
SHEEP 2002 gives breed societies the opportunity to attract new customers, and Robyn Hulme will be beating the drum for the Suffolk breed.
Generally regarded as one of the top Suffolk breeders in Europe, he relies on selling tups to other pedigree flocks and to commercial prime lamb producers.
To be able to sell well-grown ram lambs from July onwards, he has to ensure genetics and feeding are spot on. In recent years, he has used brassica crops to rear his top sale rams.
His 140 pedigree ewes start lambing in early January. From the start, he aims to give rams highly nutritious springtime-like forage every day until they leave Crosemere Hall, near Ellesmere, in Shropshire.
Lambs are turned out with their mothers on to swedes in February, where they stay until the end of March. For the next 3-4 weeks they graze young and highly digestible grass on a new ley. A cereal-based concentrate is also fed. After weaning, they spend a month to six weeks on new leys before the best 30 ram lambs are pulled out.
These graze a crop of Oliver Seeds Pioneer mixture consisting of Winfred forage rape and Italian ryegrass. From three weeks before sale they are given access to cabbages, which also provide a handy fresh feed when tups are penned at sales.
"Getting ram lambs ready for the early sales is like turning out a highly trained Olympic athlete. There must be no checks in their development, so getting feeding right is vitally important."
Before deciding to go for this particular forage crop mixture, Mr Hulme ran his own small trial during which sheep were offered several alternatives and allowed to choose. Fortunately the rape they judged to be the best also had good resistance to bolting and mildew. The presence of Italian ryegrass in the mixture simplifies management, as it is unnecessary to provide an adjacent area of grass.
About 5.6ha (14 acres) of the crop is grown in small blocks, which are sown about eight weeks before required by the first draw of rams, or by later drawn groups. As soon as the first tups are sold, those destined for later sales graze regrowths of the forage crop, and later, fresh areas grown especially for them.
Mr Hulme, who farms 343ha (850 acres) in partnership with his father, Stanley, says the system produces ram lambs weighing about 90kg at six months old.
Their Crosemanor flock celebrates its 50th anniversary this year, and the partners have high hopes for one particular ram at the Suffolk Societys Edinburgh sale. Some breeders who inspected the flock ahead of the event claimed he was better than Crosemanor Commander, who was reserve champion at the sale in 1997 and sold for 26,000gns.
In a reasonable season, first draw ram lambs average about £3000 and second draw tups, £1000 a head. Those selected later, mostly going to commercial flocks, realise £600-£700 a head.
Robyn Hulme is bullish about prospects for the breed. He believes that competition from imported breeds has stimulated breeders to improve shape and fleshing characteristics and that overall quality of rams reaching sales is better.
He is enthusiastic about the breeds ability to sire lambs that can either be finished early or, after being stored for a while, respond to extra feeding to finish quickly.
But what gives him most confidence is the way Suffolk breeders have supported scrapie genotyping. He started in 1997 when a test in the UK cost £30 a sample. Instead he sent blood samples to the US and paid £13 a test, including postage.
Having decided to use only the most scrapie resistant RR genotype rams, he found he had to get rid of all his stock tups, including some expensive RQs. With others doing the same, prices shot up and he failed to buy any of the small number of RR tups reaching the market.
Another breeder offered him a share in two rams, including one that had been injured in a freak creep feeder accident. They did an excellent job and in the last test, 73 out of 76 rams were RRs.
• Young leys.
• Concentrate feed.
• Nutritious forage crops.
Leafy forage crops provide an ideal feed for point-of-sale pedigree ram lambs, believes Robyn Hulme.