How a Lleyn breeder increased lamb cheque by £5.50 a lamb in 10 years

Worcestershire farmers Marcus and Kathryn Bullock and their daughter Kate have seen a 2kg lift in scanning weights in the last 10 years and a 10% increase in lambs born alive at Bank Farm in Abberley. 

Their improvement was recognised with the 2017 AHDB Beef and Lamb Better Returns programme Decade of Progress flock award, after the flock index lifted from 49.17 in 2007 (breed average 97.16) to 167.85 (breed average 159) in 2017.

More recently, the Bank Farm index has climbed to a new high of 220.3, well above the breed average of 174.18. Maternal ability is at an index score of 1.13, again, above the breed average of 0.75, with the combined FEC EBV standing at 0.41, just outside the top 1% for the entire flock.

Samuel Boon of Signet Breeding Services estimates the genetic gain to be worth an extra £5.50 a lamb, based on £2/kg and an extra £1.50 a head for having more lambs to sell.

See also: How maedi visna led to whole flock cull

Farm facts: Bank Farm Lleyn

  • 600 breeding ewes and 300 ewe lambs
  • 90ha owned plus rented ground for grazing
  • Barley and oats grown within a six year arable rotation
  • Medium-term (three-year) temporary ryegrass/clover leys
  • High-health status flock accredited for MV and Enzootic abortion
  • Rams are scrapie genotyped and blood sampled for CLA (caseous lymphadenitis)
  • Exported first shipment of 400 doses of Lleyn semen to New Zealand this year

Flock background

The Bullocks have 30 years of flock data going back to 1988 when they first started breeding Lleyn sheep.

Through culling hard and monitoring the ability for mature ewes to rear the equivalent of their own weight in weaned lambs, the genetic progress of the flock was good, although flock expansion was understandably slow.

Then, when Signet decreased the Lleyn index’s weighting on prolificacy in 2005, the Bullocks decided to start Signet performance recording, with the advent of two new Lleyn indexes.

More recently, in 2010 the flock artificial insemination (AI) programme started, which speeded up genetic gain in the flock, mainly using homebred sires, as well as limited semen from bought-in tups.

“We have only bought one ram and two ram lambs in the last five years – we have placed considerable emphasis on the careful use of AI,” explains Marcus, who runs eight families of sheep.

“We aren’t set on a line breeding programme, but we want to breed from a certain type of Lleyn that suits our ground really well and performs with minimal help and inputs from us.”

The Inbreeding coefficient software provided by Signet is used to keep a check on any close breeding, but Marcus says that all matings to date have been of negligible risk.

Between 100 and 150 ewes are AI-mated, with up to 300 in some years. The overall aim is to match ewes lacking in particular traits with suitable rams to improve that specific trait.

“There are a limited number of flocks from which we can source tups, who operate systems similar to ours, and we need to ensure (as far as possible) that  purchased animal won’t take our flock backwards,” says Marcus.

“The recent expansion of members within the Performance Recorded Lleyn Breeders Group has provided us with a considerable amount of extremely useful data which will assist in the identification and selection of the very best genetics within the Lleyn breed”.

AI programme

  • Rams trained to “jump” and mate dummy ewes prior to the AI date
  • One ejaculation can produce sufficient semen to service 50-60 ewes
  • If required, rams are capable of two jumps per day
  • Rams jumped to collect fresh semen and ewes inseminated later that morning
  • Lacroscopic AI technique used to implant sperm directly into fallopian tubes
  • Regularly achieve 90-95% conception rate from fresh semen
  • AI requires vet time – with progesterone and sponges costs about £20 a ewe
  • Up to four rams have served 300 ewes
  • Prostaglandin sponges followed by pregnant mare serum gonadotrophin (PMSG) to synchronise ovulation.

Culling policy

As well as the belief that rams should be reared on forage alone, and sheep farming must be based on growth from grass, the Bullocks say that, without exception, problems must be culled immediately to remove any potential genetic weaknesses from the flock.

“Our approach is to be constantly looking for reasons to identify a sheep and cull it,” says Kathryn. “You have to continually raise the bar at the base of the flock by removing the problems – consequently the top end of the flock takes care of itself.”

Faults like lameness, prolapses, poor mothering and infertility are managed through culling. Combined with a strong focus on increasing the flock’s genetic merit, this means a minimum of four crops of lambs is expected, and six crops in a very long-lived ewe, from which they would be looking to retain the best males for breeding.

Kathryn and Marcus Bullock

Kathryn and Marcus Bullock

Breeding for worm resistance

  • Project coordinated by Somerset breeder George Cullimore and independent sheep consultant Kate Philips (Harper Adams University)
  • Working with flocks in the Performance Recorded Lleyn Breeders Group
  • Combined with saliva testing for the antibody immunoglobulin A (IgA), the Bullocks hope to ascertain which sheep are high shedders, resilient to high amounts of eggs and resistant altogether
  • 11 years of data on faecal egg counts (FECs) has been collected at Bank Farm
  • Egg shedding has become the latest culling misdemeanour, and this will soon be bolstered by the saliva antibody test (IgA) for worm resistance
  • Some sheep with high egg counts can appear to have no problems with weight gain, fleece or dirty back ends, so these sheep, while shedding a lot of eggs for others in the flock to ingest, could have a resilience to the worms. However, this animal may be utilising additional protein in the diet to maintain this level of resilience, and still be contaminating pastures unnecessarily.

Outdoor lambing

  • Lambing runs for no more than four weeks from mid-March to mid-April
  • Mortality was below 8% this year (lambing 4.8%, mortality to weaning 2.9%)
  • Mature ewes scan at around 189%, yearlings at 165-170% and ewe lambs at 112-113%
  • Teasers used for 16 days on mature ewes
  • Blue raddles are used to identify ewe returning to first service – these are sold in-lamb or barren

Grassland management

  • High stocking rates of 15-25/ha (6-10/ac)
  • Ewes paddock-grazed in mobs of 100-120 through the summer
  • Fields soil sampled every three years
  • Fresh and conserved forage analysis taken annually, trace elements and antagonists assessed 
  • Clover drilled as a blend at 2kg/ac in a 14kg/ac ryegrass mix using medium and late Perennial Ryegrass varieties
  • Grazing supplemented when considered necessary with homegrown 50:50 oats and whole barley mix instead of using mineral buckets, fed to a maximum of 250g a head/day.

Breeding from ewe lambs

  • Ewe lambs targeted to reach 36kg before teaser rams are inserted
  • Target tupping weight of 40kg must be reached by late October (60% of mature weight 65 – 70kg)
  • 90% conception rate at first service
  • Lambs have two cycles with the teaser at 1:100
  • Teasers are used for 30 days following initial vaccination for toxoplasmosis

Bank Farm Lleyn holds an on-farm Helmsman system ram sale on the last Saturday in July each year. To read more about the southern hemisphere-style silent auction, see: Why on-farm ram auctions are growing in popularity