Composite sheep breeds prove profitable alternative to old favourites

Innovis breeding is taking the UK by storm since its establishment in 2005. Rhian Price speaks to two farmers using its composite breeds.

Low-maintenance breeds that thrive on forage are becoming more sought after by commercial sheep producers, as cost of production escalates. So it is no surprise there has been increasing interest in Innovis since its breeding programme was established in 2005.

The company operates the largest performance-recorded flock in the UK, where more than 40 traits are noted. Despite this strict breeding policy, the nucleus flock has grown to 1,800 ewes.

Dewi Jones, Innovis CEO, says: “There is a danger people get hooked on EBVs, but forget the important stuff. They forget the first rule of commercial farming is you need a live lamb.”

Breeds in focus

Aberdale is a maternal composite breed of British-cross New Zealand Texel, which carries a prolific Inverdale gene that adds half a lamb.

Abertex is the male equivalent which doesn’t carry the Inverdale gene.

Aberfield is another maternal composite made up of Bluefaced Leicester and Texel lines.

The Primera is a composite terminal sire made up of NZ Hampshire, South Down, Poll Dorset, Suffolk, South Suffolk and Australian White Suffolk.

At Innovis headquarters in Peithyll, Aberystwyth, ewes are tupped in November to lamb in the second week of April and rams are expected to earn their keep, with three rams for every 250 ewes.

Despite the high ewe-to-ram ratio, the scanning percentage last year was 180% for Aberdale ewes and 175% for Aberfield, and the majority of ewes lamb in the first 10 days.

Mr Jones credits the fast-growing popularity of the breed to the fact that they’re farmed in commercial conditions. Ewes are lambed outdoors at the 500-acre Myndd Garddu farm, where ground rises to 1,000ft above sea level and all ewes are expected to lamb without assistance.

Lambs are shorn on their mother and are later weaned at 12 weeks when faecal egg counting is monitored in mob groups before individual sampling starts to produce a breeding value for worm resistance.

The lambs are then ultrasonically scanned at 16 weeks to identify those with exceptional back fat and muscling, with 600 of the very best CT-scanned annually to collect accurate whole-body image analysis on carcass composition and meat distribution.

“This information enables us to accurately predict killing out percentages, primal weights and to develop proxy measurements for improved meat-eating quality for the progeny of each ram sold.”

Currently Innovis sells 1,400 rams, but the company has ambitions to increase this to more than 3,000 over the next four years and hopes its six breeding partner flocks, scattered across Britain, will help it achieve this.

“Breeding partners are supplied with embryos to establish their own flock of Aberfield or Abermax, which produce rams for Innovis. More than 4,500 embryos are transferred each year in one of the largest breeding programmes globally.

“They performance record all of their animals and this data is fed back to us to run the genetic evaluations,” adds Mr Jones.

He believes this approach to breeding is essential if the UK is to compete globally with genetics from the southern hemisphere. He adds: “I have no doubt we can.”

Switchover to Aberdales has helped grades

Alwyn Roberts, Rhydicriw Farm, Near Tywyn

Alwyn Roberts decided to switch to Aberdale ewes almost six years ago in an attempt to boost the prolificacy of his hill flock and boost the conformation of finished lambs.

Farm facts

121ha organic farm

  • 25 Welsh Black-cross Angus cows
  • An additional flock of 120 purebred Welsh Mountain ewes are kept on Cader Idris mountain, where ground peaks at 1,200ft above sea level

Previously, Mr Roberts ran a flock of Welsh ewes at the 121ha farm, but he says he was finding it difficult to get lambs to meet the specification of his supply contract with Waitrose.

“Their weight wasn’t good enough. It was below 14kg deadweight and Waitrose was looking for 20kg,” explains Mr Roberts.

Only 63% of lambs were hitting grades, but since buying in 300 Aberdale ewes to complement the flock of 120 Lleyn ewes, the hit rate has improved to 90%. “It has made a big difference,” says Mr Roberts.

One big attraction of the Aberdale is their prolificacy. The scanning percentage for the Aberdale was nearly 200% this year, in comparison to the Lleyn and Welsh Mountain ewes at 120% and 100%, respectively.

Aberdale ewes carry the “Inverdale gene”, which boosts their fertility by half a lamb, making them suitable for upland farms that struggle to obtain high scanning rates.

With scanning rates hitting 198%, Mr Roberts says he has to “negative flush” the Aberdale ewes on rough ground to ensure his lambing percentage remains manageable.

At weaning ewes are put on to rough pasture, which sits at 550ft above sea level, and tups are released in with them in October to lamb in March.

Lambs are weaned at 12 weeks and anything weighing more than 38kg is moved on to a red clover and chicory ley to take them up to 42kg liveweight. 

Mr Roberts says being organically certified has drastically improved land productivity and grassland quality. Leys are being reseeded with high-sugar ryegrasses and 15 acres is grown for lamb finishing each year.

For the first time this year two Primera tups were used alongside Abermax rams.

“One of the reasons I wanted to try a Primera is because we lamb outdoors and I wanted something with a bit of vigour.”

Mr Roberts has already sent three loads to Llanidloes abattoir and he says he has been pleasantly surprised by the weight of Primera progeny. “On average they are about 3-4kg heavier than the Abermax and I’m very happy with the grades,” he adds.

So far, the majority of lambs have killed out at 100%, averaging E and U grades.

Mr Roberts says the breed has undoubtedly helped him to better meet supermarket requirements. “At the end of the day you have to work with the supermarkets and produce a lamb they require.”

Aberfield gives maximum gains from forage-based system

Jim Beary, Aston Bank, Stafford

First-generation farmer Jim Beary’s principal objective is to maximise kilos of lamb produced from forage in order to minimise production costs. Breed choice and good grassland management have been pivotal in helping him to achieve this.

Having taken on the 34ha county council tenancy at Aston Bank Farm, Staffordshire, in 2012, he was keen to make best use of the ex-dairy farm’s good pastures.

A second, calf-rearing enterprise means there is limited indoor space for lambing, so breed hardiness was another must-have.

“I’m converting the sheds into a calf-rearing unit, so I wanted an easy-care, outdoor lambing system that was relatively low-maintenance,” explains Mr Beary.

He decided to opt for Aberfield genetics – renowned for their ability to maximise forage – and now runs a maternal flock of 50 pure Romneys and 350 Aberfield-cross Romneys.

Aberfield-cross ewes are mated with an Abermax ram to lamb in April. Ewes lamb outdoors, with the exception of ewe lambs, which are brought indoors to lamb and turned out two days later.

In the run-up to lambing, ewes receive high-energy buckets rather than concentrate.

“I’m not going to do that this year. I don’t think the majority of them needed it. They were all in good body condition score up to lambing. I’m going to bolus pre-lambing and just feed fodder beet and grass,” explains Mr Beary.

Despite this, scanning rates were up on the year at 185% for the main flock and this year’s performance for the lamb crop – which doesn’t receive any supplements either – has been the best to date.

Farm facts

  • 34ha is county council owned and a further 40ha is rented privately
  • Running a flock of 350 Aberfield-cross Romneys and 50 pure Romney ewes

“Up to weaning the main batch was averaging 450g a day and some were doing 520g,” explains Mr Beary, who weighs at regular intervals.

Lambs are weaned at 12 weeks and moved to fields of silage aftermath. Half of the lambs are sold at 19kg deadweight to Westwood, Cannock, and the remainder is sold at 42kg liveweight at Shrewsbury Market, averaging about £70 a head.

Last year, the entire crop finished within 16 weeks and graded within the R3L specification.

Mr Beary believes the breed allows him to make the most from forage and he is applying grassland management skills acquired from a stint working in New Zealand.


Stocking rate is 15 ewes an acre during peak grass growth and sheep are rotationally grazed in a mob group of 300. “They go into pasture at 10cm and come out at 4cm,” he explains.

During the winter months ewe lambs are grazed on a break crop of forage rape, which Mr Beary says has helped them hit breeding target weights of 40kg.

In a year where lamb prices have plummeted, being able to control input costs has put him in a good position. This year’s cost of production levelled at £39 a ewe and £3.50 a lamb, which includes everything except labour. Mr Beary says this should allow him a minimum profit of about £35 a lamb.

He believes there’s much to learn from New Zealand farmers. “They are unsubsidised for a start, so they have to be better. If sheep farming here wasn’t highly subsidised it would be completely different.”

In the near future Mr Beary’s ambition is to grow the flock to 1,000 ewes and to breed all his own replacements. He is well on his way to achieving this.