Performance recording worth £5 a lamb to Dorset breeder

Poll Dorset breeder Graham Langford abandoned the show ring in favour of focusing on Signet recording. He credits the move with increasing the value of his prime lambs by £5 a head.

He said this has been achieved by focusing on commercial traits to accelerate genetic gain and producing sheep that are more functional.

Michael Priestley visited him at his farm in Devon to find out what prompted the move and how it’s changed the flock’s breeding policy.

Great Garlandhayes Farm facts

  • 53ha over three holdings
  • 130-head pedigree Poll Dorset closed flock (it isn’t closed if replacements are bought in)
  • Lying at 245-310m above sea level (800-1,000ft)
  • Supplying prime lambs through Waitrose scheme
  • Carcases typically 18-20kg at R2 or better
  • Signet recorded and EID tagged since 2000
  • Lambs outdoors

Signet figures show rams have the potential to pass an additional 2.88kg onto lamb scanning weights compared with 15 years ago, which at £2/kg liveweight is worth over £5 a head to the prime lamb.

This represents a major step forward in performance since Mr Langford and his wife Anne, at Great Garlandhayes Farm in Clayhidon, Devon, starting breeding Poll Dorsets in 2000.

Based on the edge of the Blackdown Hills, the Blackdown flock is targeted purely at the commercial autumn lamb market, although Mr Langford explains this wasn’t always the case.

See also: How a young breeder manages 90 pedigree ewes and full-time job

Why he stopped showing

In the early days, the flock competed on the show circuit, winning championships at the Dorset, Devon County and Bath and West shows. But the Langfords believe the show ring was hindering genetic progress.

“I am not anti-showing, but I found it difficult to meet show requirements and maintain on-farm functionality,” explains Mr Langford.

“Pedigree showing was a great way to get to know people and I enjoyed it, but eight years ago I stopped and since then the maternal progress of the flock has been more consistent.”

Mr Langford believes that concentrate feeding and breeding for larger heads and wider shoulders for the show ring is irrelevant for the commercial sector. Instead, he is focusing on reducing intervention at lambing and producing parts of the carcase that the market wants.

Graham Langford

Graham Langford of Great Garlandhayes Farm

“There is little money in a shoulder joint,” he explains. “And the market for very large legs of lamb has gone, so a longer, more balanced conformation is preferred.”

Since ceasing showing, the flock has grown a reputation among commercial, early lambing flocks, with six regular customers across the region all targeting the early-lambing market.

High-index performance-recorded rams are bought and sold through the Centurion Group of Breeders, a discussion group and sire reference scheme, which Mr Langford helps co-ordinate. 

Breeding programme

Teaser rams are put in at the end of March for 14 days, before ewes spend 35 days with the ram in five tupping groups at 20-30 ewes per ram. This usually sees 80-90% tupped in the first cycle.

After shearing and scanning in late June, any empty ewes (8-10%) go with rams again in July to lamb in November, although their progeny is then only kept for meat production.

September lambers usually scan at 150-160% with a 175-180% lambing overall and 3-4% empty rate.

Tups are matched to females to improve traits like litter size, fat depth and muscle depth. Fat depth is currently a little low and rams are being matched to improve that trait, says Mr Langford. Two ram lambs are usually retained for use, as lambs, each year.

“I do not breed my ewe lambs as it brings huge management involvement and I want to choose my replacement ewes as shearlings,” he explains.

Sheep are culled according to milking ability, udders, lameness (third intervention) and fertility. Lameness is managed by keeping scald at bay, liming the floor when sheep are worked and treating cases with an alamycin injection in the foot, and a modern view is taken not to routinely trim feet.

The Blackdown flock of Poll Dorsets at Great Garlandhayes Farm

Benefits of recording

As well as weight-gain improvements worth £5 a lamb, Mr Langford’s Signet figures show a 10% increase in female prolificacy since 2004. 

Ewes are also milkier, producing 1.4kg more milk since 2003. Meanwhile, birthweights have become more consistent at around the 4-4.5kg mark, whereas during the show years weights of up to 9kg were not uncommon. 

Mr Langford explains he was focused on figures from the outset of establishing the flock.

“You can’t manage what you don’t measure,” he says. “I will look at a ram’s index before I look at phenotypic characteristics, like appearance or shape of the animal. I think most farmers tend to do it the other way around.”

2018 Signet evaluation

 

Terminal index

Maternal index

Breed average

280

237

Blackdown flock

375

296

Management overview

Grassland management

Fields are small (2-3ha) and rotationally grazed. No fertiliser is used. Instead fields are spot-sprayed only.

Most fields are very old swards that are being slowly improved by drilling with spring barley for a local dairy farm, following with a grass mix of festuloliums (ryegrass/fescue), trefoils, sheep parsley, cocksfoot, timothy, plantain and burnet.

Concentrate feeding

No breeding stock receive anything other than forage when growing. Prime lambs are built up to 0.5kg a head/day post-weaning on a 18% crude protein starter nut.

A breeding ewe nut is fed to breeding ewes in late gestation at 0.4-0.5kg a head/day to help colostrum production.

Health plan

Flooring is limed and stock are footbathed with zinc sulphate every time sheep are worked (3-4 times/year). All pastures are rested for 14 days to allow the scald (fusobacterium necrophorum) to die.

No abortion vaccine is currently used, only a clostridia vaccine. Antibiotics use is restricted to lameness cases (alamycin) and 1-2 joint-ill cases a year are treated with a long-acting antibiotic. 

Lambing

Late summer, outdoor lambing minimises intervention and antibiotics. Only 3-4% of sheep require lambing assistance as average birthweights for twins are 4-4.5kg with a lamb mortality figure of typically about 5%. 

Once lambed, ewes are brought inside for 24-36 hours and lambs are tagged and tailed. All ram lambs are kept entire. 

September lambs are weaned at Christmas, and November lambs are weaned in January at 12 weeks old. DLWGs of 300-450g a head are typical, with the first lambs sent to Jaspers at Launceston on a Waitrose contract at 14 weeks old.

Centurion Group of Breeders (CGB)

  • A discussion group and sire reference scheme formed in 1990
  • 10 breeders contributed 10 sheep each to be bred to a high index ram each year
  • Holds an annual spring sale at Sedgemoor
  • Backed by the Universities of Exeter, Warwick, Nottingham and Sheffield and working with Cornell, the CGB aims to find gene markers for the sheep that consistently lamb in the autumn and which are prolific.