17 April 1998

SWITCH TO PUREBREDS MEETS DEMAND FOR LIGHTER LAMBS

A move to producing purebred lightweight lambs instead of

using a terminal sire and an emphasis on quality is paying

off for one Welsh breeder. Robert Davies reports

EXPLOITING market demand has meant a change of breeding policy for one Welsh sheep producer, but hes maintained a drive to produce quality.

Richard Howells has stopped putting terminal sires on hill ewes, but breeding better shaped prime lambs is still a priority.

Several factors prompted the change of policy at Gelli Farm, Cymmer, Glamorgan. Hardy sheep do best on the exposed 750ha (1950-acre) severely disadvantaged unit, which lies close to the highest A class road in the UK.

Crossing half the flock produced a crop of less hardy lambs, and reduced the number of ewe lamb replacements available for selection.

The family partnership was also influenced by what it calls "the Italian job". After years of struggling to find profitable outlets for purebred lambs, which were difficult to finish, they found buyers in Italy and Iberia were prepared to pay premium prices for lightweight lambs in little more than store condition. And they were not too demanding on conformation.

Now the 2900 South Wales Welsh Mountain ewes at Gelli Farm are bred pure to superior tups that cost up to £900 a head, though the average is around £550. Using top rams is part of on-going flock improvement aimed at improving conformation overall, and eye muscle and backfat measurements in particular.

The whole flock was scanned to identify 80 elite ewes to make up a nucleus flock. The best rams are used on this to breed as many high quality replacements as possible. Selected home bred rams are also entered for the breeds annual performance test.

High index test rams are beginning to command premium prices, though most breeders, including Mr Howells, still put much emphasis on traditional characteristics assessed by eye.

Improve hill flocks

"Despite the market in southern Europe we have to continue improving our hill flocks using a combination of figures and visual assessment," Mr Howells says.

"The impact of the strong £ over the past year has shown how vulnerable export markets can be, so we must be in a position to produce for both home and overseas markets."

The flock improvement, which is part of the MLC co-ordinated and EU funded Welsh Sheep Strategy, has pushed up the average mid-August weight of late March born lambs by over 1kg. The gains made will still be exploitable should market changes force a return to cross breeding.

Marketplace pressures and falling support payments are not the only things outside his control that are threatening the future of the farm. As for many units in the former industrialised valleys of south Wales, proximity to sprawling housing estates creates problems seldom seen in rural areas.

Wooden fence posts disappear overnight. Trespass, farm theft, and rubbish dumping are endemic, and livestock worrying by dogs is an ever present hazard. Farmers who complain expect abuse, and know they risk physical violence.

"Many of the farmers around when I was at school have given up the perpetual challenges of hill farming on the urban fringe. Their units are now under trees, or amalgamated. Those of us who remain have to be prepared to be vigilant and live with inevitable stock losses."

Killed by dogs

In one year it is not unusual for dogs to kill 50 of the Howells familys ewes and the lambs they are carrying. Others abort, and extra ewes must be run without support payments to ensure that they have the right number at the end of the sheep annual premium retention period.

But unlike many Welsh hill farmers Richard has seen his son, David, join him, his wife Susan and father Len in the partnership. Second son, Lyn, is also working at home. &#42

Above: The 80-ewe elite flock at Gelli Farm produces high quality replacements as part of a flock improvement programme, run in conjunction with the Welsh sheep strategy.

Left: The 2900

South Wales Welsh Mountain ewes produce purebred lambs for both export and home

markets, explains

Richard Howells.

PUREBREEDING PLUSES

&#8226 Exploits markets.

&#8226 Nucleus flock established.

&#8226 Drive to improve quality.