No-nonsense culling approach key to optimal fertility

Having the determination and patience to carry through on a strict culling regime with a “no passengers” attitude has resulted in an impressive lambing percentage of 178% at Logie Durno Farm, Inverurie, Aberdeenshire.

And for 2010 Farmers Weekly Sheep Farmer of the Year winners, the Ingram family – William, Carole and their children, Gregor, Bruce and Amy – whose reputation for breeding sheep with impressive fertility traits is evident in the repeat custom at their annual on-farm tup sale, this approach has paid dividends in their 2,000 ewe flock.

They attribute a tight lambing period to strict culling and selection over the past few years, and say sheep farmers looking to boost profits must “take out the ewes that aren’t paying” and work on the basis that “sheep must work for their keep”.

William says: “When we first started being more selective we gave black tags to anything that had a problem, and we found we wanted to get rid of about 25% of the flock.

“So that year we kept a few, and when we started lambing in the second year, the ones with problems already had a black tag from the year before. Since then we have had the confidence to cull harder.”

He says to succeed with an effective culling strategy, producers need to be hard-nosed. “One of the problems is that if you decide you are going to cull out anything with problems, in the first season you may be culling a quarter of the flock,” he adds.

“You have to be able to withstand that or at least be prepared for it. The price of replacement stock is so high, so it’s very difficult to do it. And one of our biggest problems at the start was not having enough numbers to do it.”

Poor-performing ewes are culled out of the flock for various reasons, including taking too long to get in-lamb, lambing difficulties, problem feet, poor growth rates and the inability to rear two lambs. This attention to detail and vigorous culling has paid off, and only 30 out of one of the 500-ewe flocks were not up to scratch this year.

Another sign that this culling strategy has been successful is the spec of the lambs going to market – according to Carole, lamb conformation has improved with selection.

William says: “The abattoir has a certain specification they want the lambs to be in. And the year we won the Farmers Weekly Sheep Farmer of the Year award, we had 1,200 lambs and 99% achieved the fat and conformation grading – 2-3H – required by Morrisons.”

Another sign of successful culling is the eradication of lambs with dirty tails. “There are varying levels of strictness with culling,” Bruce explains, “but one thing we have selected on is taking out anything with dirty tails.

“We don’t want to sell any rams that go to people and their lambs have dirty tails, because it costs the farmer money to clip them. We have found it to be a genetic thing.”

Traits the Ingrams select ewes for include: milkiness; ewes that hold to the ram in the first cycle; lambing ease; good growth rates; and good feet.

Bruce explains: “We don’t keep any of the progeny from the culled ewes, and we only select sheep that lamb in the first 17 days. We find that keeps the lambing percentage up. It makes no sense to keep a sheep that doesn’t perform if it costs the same to keep as one that does.”

William adds: “Having the courage is key to this culling regime – I got a shock when we first started culling out, and you have got to have the conviction to carry it through. We are definitely more profitable now – a lot of flock owners have 25% of ewes not making any money, so it’s important to reduce that.”

Keeping it young

Another key factor behind good fertility at Logie Durno Farm is the fact the Ingrams keep a young flock, grazed on young grass leys.

Bruce says: “We try and keep the flock quite young and I think that affects fertility, because the older ewes are less fertile. There are some commercial people who keep empty ewes, but it’s important not to keep them.”

As a result of this approach, any gimmers or ewe lambs left empty after their first season are not kept in the flock. There is also a cut-off point for all sheep, and after four years they are all taken out of the flock.

Carole explains: “Those sheep have fewer lambs, create more work and are less likely to be in-lamb on time for next year. We are not wanting passengers – they are all meant to be working for their keep.”

Good grassland husbandry is at the heart of their farming enterprise. As a result, the family has made a concerted effort to graze ewes on young grass ahead of tupping, to boost fertility. They say ewes grazed on young grass tend to have more lambs.

William says: “At tupping time, we try to make sure the ewes aren’t in too good condition when they go do the rams – we try to ensure they are on a rising plane of nutrition.”

Recording and estimated breeding values

As pedigree breeders, the Ingrams are fully aware of the benefits of performance recording and using EBVs.

Carole says: “We put a lot of time and effort into the recording process – if you have a system in place which pinpoints your underachievers, you can deal with it.”

All the rams offered for sale at the Logie Durno sale, which this year takes place on 8 August, are performance-recorded.

Bruce adds: “I think EBVs are a tool that more sheep farmers need to incorporate into selection. One of the biggest things for us is the use of performance figures, and we think it’s crucial for the industry that people are recording.

In the future, the family plan to make better use of electronic identification (EID). William explains: “We want to try and use EID more to our advantage. We are on top of recording without using EID but would like to use it to speed up the process.”

Fertility: top tips from the Ingrams

  • Keep a young flock. After four years all sheep go from the Ingrams’ flock
  • Adopt a strict culling strategy and be prepared to lose a substantial amount of the flock at first
  • Remember nutrition plays an important role – try and graze ewes on young grass and ensure they are on a rising plane of nutrition at the time of tupping
  • Don’t keep anything in the flock that fails to get in-lamb
  • Record performance and take EBVs into consideration when buying-in stock

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