Pushing genetic boundaries adds value to ram sales

Breeding pedigree rams in a commercial environment has improved genetic gain and profit for one Essex breeder.

Pushing the boundaries when it comes to genetic improvement with a vision not only to add value to ram sales, but also to his commercial flock is something Texel breeder and farm manager Richard Clay has been doing for some time.

And as member number nine of Signet Breeding Services, bearing in mind there are more than 3000, Mr Clay has continually identified and selected top-performing rams, resulting in five out of seven rams in the top 1% of the Texel breed for growth and muscling. With 110 pedigree Texel ewes along with 550 commercial ewes at Gaynes Park Farm, Essex, using performance recording on homebred genetics has allowed Mr Clay to benchmark his homebred sires.

“Benchmarking has proved a cost effective way of making genetic gain, but we haven’t just been selecting on figures. The commercial attributes like teeth and feet are just as important because if you don’t have these you won’t have a market for your animals,” he says.

And consideration for his buyers’ needs ranks highly with Mr Clay. Despite him running separate pedigree and commercial flocks, the pedigree animals are made to perform in a commercial environment.

“If you want to sell rams to commercial producers, they have to be able to work in this environment and those that can’t will be removed from the gene pool. Handholding animals through rearing isn’t an option,” he says.

Indirectly, breeding pedigree rams in this way has also improved maternal EBVs, as those not producing enough milk are removed. “The level of prolificacy is about 15% above the breed average with longevity also increasing as a result of treating pedigree animals in a commercial way,” says Mr Clay. “They are made to eat more forage, allowing them to build up disease resistance and parasite challenge. This means we are not changing the system to fit the genetics.”

Likewise, the same attention to detail at breeding is applied in his commercial flock. In selecting sires, only good index rams are used ensuring it is not just a dumping ground for unsold rams. And using homebred rams allows Mr Clay to see what is happening on his clients’ farms.

But effort is needed to gather in-depth breeding information. Male and female lambs are weighed at birth and at eight weeks’ old. They are ultrasound scanned at 20 weeks, measuring muscle depth across the loin and carcass, and to measure fat depth. Mr Clay is also considering using CT scanning to give a more accurate analysis on the whole body.

“We are hoping to use a mobile CT scanner at Nottingham University to analyse the whole body on three or four of our top rams. This will give a more accurate analysis and is the icing on the cake for buyers,” he says.

The detailed records taken throughout rearing are sent to Signet for analysis, and the results enable Mr Clay to identify ram and ewe lambs for use, according to Signet Breeding Services manager Sam Boon. “Identifying the best animals to use early on in the year can speed up genetic progress. This careful selection means 143 out of 149 of the pedigree lambs born at Gaynes Park Farm this year were in the top 10% of the breed,” says Mr Boon.

Since 1992, the breeding potential for growth has increased by 10kg, the lean weight EBVs is 1.6kg more than it was in 1992 and the average ram will now produce progeny 2.5kg heavier than other breed averages, adds Mr Boon.

“Average commercial lamb weights at marketing in 1992 was 16kg, but they now average 19kg. This 3kg weight increase accounts to a huge amount over several hundred lambs and is down to the selective and progressive breeding ay Gaynes Park Farm,” says Mr Boon.

With more people wanting to buy off farm due to flexibility, using EBVs as a predictive guide to how an animal will breed enables commercial buyers to purchase with confidence. And this is ringing true for Mr Clay, who has 80% repeat business every year.

“The effort and money invested into recording genetic progress allows me to chart progress and produce what the customer wants,” he says.

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