Could the first importation of New Zealand Texel sheep in to the UK be the start of a change in genetic thinking? Jeremy Hunt find outs
The arrival of the first importation of Texel sheep from New Zealand could bring significant changes to the way commercial sheep are bred and managed in the UK.
The genetics of the nucleus flock of 10 females and three rams, which arrived at the Hulme family’s Shropshire farm just four weeks ago, have been developed for worm resistance, no foot trimming, easy lambing, grass-based management with no additional feeding, hardiness, high ram libido – as well as full performance recording.
The Texels – which will undergo a flushing programme starting in early autumn – compliment the family’s importation of New Zealand Suffolk genetics which arrived four years ago and which will this year produce about 150 rams. This is to meet the growing demand among commercial prime lamb producers keen to benefit from the “easycare” ethos that now underpins the development of terminal sire breeding in New Zealand.
But unlike their UK-bred counterparts, the newly arrived Texels won’t be targeting the prime lamb sire market. In New Zealand the Texel is primarily used as a female producer and it’s this role – particularly when used on hill ewes – that the Hulme family believes will offer new opportunities to breeders of commercial ewes through the easy management traits the breed has been selected for.
“Almost 30 years ago the New Zealand sheep industry lost its entire subsidy and sheep were worth very little,” says Robyn Hulme, who farms with his wife Phillipa and son Nick at Pikesend Farm, Welsh Frankton, near Ellesmere.
“At that time it was reckoned that on average one man could manage a flock of 850 ewes. Today one man is expected to look after 3,500 sheep – and it has all been achieved by selecting for sheep that are easily managed and require minimum inputs.
“The management criteria in the flock we’ve bought our stock from is based on a very strict approach to selecting for commercial traits that contribute to “easy care” while still producing healthy, vigorous and profitable sheep. So in New Zealand, even if a ewe has healthy feet but grows excess horn and requires foot trimming, she is culled. It’s a rigorous system, but it has worked.
The 1000-ewe flock Mr Hulme has imported from has annual flock health costs of £80 – that’s equivalent to just eight pence a ewe. The ewes aren’t wormed, aren’t dipped and receive no foot treatment. Feet are all checked three times in the first two years of life and if a ewe needs its feet trimmed, it’s culled as part of the selection process to constantly maintain functional traits.
A crossing programme in New Zealand has produced the Suff-Tex – a combination of Suffolk and Texel genetics – and while this blending of two terminal sire breeds is also under way as part of the Hulme’s “Easyrams” business, the family are convinced the New Zealand Texel could bring other benefits to UK sheep production.
“We could only import RR sheep and because there’s no scrapie in New Zealand and there’s no official testing, finding sheep to import wasn’t easy. But we were put in touch with Robbie Hughes, a Welshman who emigrated to New Zealand 16 years ago, and have imported all the sheep from his flock,” says Mr Hulme.
Mr Hughes’ selection programme now involves DNA testing for resistance to foot rot, cold tolerance (based on levels of brown fat carried by rams as an indication of tolerance of cold conditions) and worm resistance.
The flock only uses tups with an acceptable genetic ranking for all these traits with the sole aim of producing functional rams that don’t need any management intervention and that will breed progeny with the same traits. But although the New Zealand Texel has also been selected for meat yield and growth rate, it’s primarily used as a female producer.
“The Texel has been used in the maternal-mix of New Zealand commercial ewes – usually comprising Romney and possibly East Friesland – and has now become renowned for its worm resistance and lamb survivability. The imported sheep have been selected from the flock’s most prolific bloodlines with ewes achieving up to 180%,” explains Mr Hulme.
But he admits he’s had to adopt “mind set” changes. “The wool on the New Zealand Texel is more open than we’re used to seeing on sheep here in the UK. Even though the flock we’ve imported from is run on a very exposed, coastal farm where conditions are tough, there’s a preference there for sheep with a more open fleece to allow the wool “to breathe”.
“There’s a belief that sheep with over-tight wool run on a system that doesn’t do any dipping increases the risk of flies getting inside the fleece and thriving on the grease. In fact, sheep that show any susceptibility to fly-strike are culled,” he adds.
But he also recognises that to ensure the continuation of the easy management genetics based on the sheep he’s imported, it will be necessary to maintain an equally rigorous approach to culling – something that isn’t normal husbandry practice in UK flock management.
“We’ll adopt the same approach with the Texels as we’ve done with the New Zealand Suffolks. With the Suffolks we won’t use a ram that has had any intervention at birth or ever had to have its feet touched at all. What we mustn’t do is undermine the genetic strengths that have been established in these bloodlines over the last 50 years – strengths that we believe will have a significant impact on the costs of sheep production in the UK.”
Mr Hulme says his aim is to produce rams that will increase his client’s profitability through lambs that will perform on a “pasture only” diet.
“Low-cost forage-based systems will be the only way to make profit out of sheep in the future, but input costs must also be cut, particularly labour.”
He lists his selection targets as: lamb survivability, easy lambing, feet that require no attention at all and resistance to worms. New Zealand breeders have also selected for high ram libido – a ram lamb will serve 50-70 ewes and adult rams 150 ewes.
“But while functional traits are of paramount importance we’re also committed to performance recording by scanning for back-fat and eye muscle and will apply these performance criteria to the imported Texels just as we have to the Suffolks.
“Sheep producers in New Zealand are now being paid on yield of meat rather than on a carcass grade as here in the UK. They use a scanning procedure that measures meat yield through the loin, shoulder and rump – something that poses a question over our obsession with gigots when this is an area of the carcass where the meat yield is worth less than that produced in the loin.”
The lamb survivability of a ram’s progeny is given high priority as a selection trait in New Zealand. “In the UK it’s not something we select for and yet the difference of plus or minus 10-15% survivability can make a mammoth amount of difference to a flock’s profitability. The number of lambs at scanning time is compared to the number of lambs weaned and in New Zealand it’s identifying significant differences in the lamb survivability traits of different rams.
“So while growth and performance are also important, if the lambs don’t live it’s wiping out the performance advantage of the ram.”
Welshman Robbie Hughes began establishing his “low cost, highly productive” strain of Texel sheep when he arrived in New Zealand 16 years ago. He now runs a flock of almost 1,000 ewes at Oamaru, South Island and produces 100 rams for sale each year.
“New Zealand Texels will make a massive difference to the ease of lambing and the time it takes lambs to have their first suck. Our lambs are capable of running away with their mothers within two hours of birth. It has to be seen to be believed.”
Mr Hughes says that like all Kiwi sheep producers he wants “naturally, functional sheep”. As part of the flock’s development he has undertaken gene testing for cold tolerance and foot-rot susceptibility.
“Testing for cold tolerance could help the profitability of UK sheep producers. DNA testing sires in New Zealand has made a big difference to lamb survival irrespective of the weather. The aim is to get more sheep with a higher level of cold tolerance into the flock because the ongoing culling of young ewes that have lost lambs through hypothermia is an expensive way of progeny testing sires for cold tolerance,” says Mr Hughes.
Vet Ian McDougall, an authority on ram fertility, continues to warn sheep producers about “the perils of overfed rams”.
“Rams working in commercial flocks should be capable of serving 150 ewes a year and to work for four seasons. This drastically reduces the costs for each lamb born and can allow producers to buy better rams and gain form the genetic progress. It’s no longer economic for rams to only be capable of serving 40 or so ewes. Unless ram breeders take notice and listen to their customers they won’t have a business in the future.”
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