Using crossbreeds helps maintain carcass quality

Continuing breeding improvements mean the meat trade will have to modify its target prime lamb carcass specifications to include heavier animals, according to Powys producer Glasnant Morgan.

Already he manages to get 87% of his lambs within the conformation and fat class parameters set by the Waitrose premium lamb marketing scheme, but finds it increasingly difficult to stay below the 21.5kg deadweight ceiling.

Last season 60 of the 871 lambs he submitted were overweight and he expects the problem to get worse.

“Like other breeders we are trying to improve the quality of our sheep, my ewes are 10kg heavier than they were 15 years ago and we are using better terminal sires,” says Mr Morgan.

“More and more lambs fail to finish properly until they reach weights which result in price penalties.

We have had to adjust our management to produce lambs with the right conformation and fat grades, now I think the abattoir and retail sectors have to learn to cope with bigger carcasses.”

Currently the average lamb produced at Pwllyrhwyaid, Talybont-on-Usk weighs 18.5kg on the hook, but the figure is likely to rise following increased use of crossbred ewes and rams.

While Mr Morgan and his son Huw are keen to avoid developing what he describes as a flock of mongrel sheep, they believe strongly in the benefits of hybrid vigour.

The best Texel, Charollais and Suffolk cross tup lambs out of the farm’s 200 Talybont-on-Usk type Welsh Mountain ewes are selected for breeding.

So too are the best ewe lambs and crossbred females now make up 80% of the 1000 ewe flock run on the family’s 184ha (450 acres).

“I much prefer to breed my own replacements to avoid buying in problems.

The actual genetics of our prime lambs are not important because we are trying to produce a type of lamb that can earn a premium by meeting market requirements.

“Selling deadweight shows us whether we are getting the breeding right.”

In 2005 lambs accepted for the Waitrose scheme realised an average of 263.3p/kg (£48.7 a head).

But Mr Morgan believes flock profitability also depends on controlling input costs.

Modern, more productive grass varieties are used whenever reseeding takes place and white clover is expected to make a big contribution to soil fertility on reseeded areas and when stitched into existing swards.

Soils are tested regularly to ensure fertiliser is used efficiently and the total amount spread has been halved over recent years.

About 14ha (35 acres) has been sown to a red clover/ryegrass mixture, which provides two cuts of haylage and grazing for lamb finishing.

About 8ha (20 acres) of forage roots are grown each year on land scheduled for reseeding.

“To make livestock production profitable it is important we grow as much as possible of the feed we need.”

But the Morgans are also committed to the integration of efficient meat production and environmental care.

They are in year six of a Tir Gofal agri-environment scheme agreement, which involves extensive tree and hedgerow planting and the protection of sensitive habitats.

It is a question of balanced management.

The 60-cow suckler herd is used to manage grazing areas, particularly the open hill land that runs up to 390m (1300ft).

While a helicopter was used to spray bracken on part of the farm last year, another 40ha (100-acre) block is being allowed to revert to typical unimproved hill grazing.

Enhancing the landscape also generates income.

Payments totalling about £18,000 a year are earned from the 152ha (376 acres) included in the Tir Gofal Scheme and the figure will rise when 15ha (37 acres) bought three years ago become eligible.

“The scheme has been a huge benefit to us.

It has allowed us to grow trees, which I love, and encouraged us to grow crops like roots, that benefit wildlife and are excellent livestock feed.”

The reconciling of food production and environmental targets also impressed the judges of the British Grassland Society’s National Grassland Management Competition 2005.

After taking the regional award the Morgans became overall winners of the DLF-Trifolium and Kemira Grow-How sponsored prize.