Estimated breeding values for sheep don’t seem to have caught on in the same way as they have done for cattle. In fact, it would almost be a taboo subject for many top breeders.
While cattle farmers have fully embraced the idea of EBVs, sheep breeders have been slower to adopt them. Birth weight, gestation length and calving ease are eagerly pored over by bull buyers.
Sleepless nights spent pulling and hauling on a calving jack tend to focus the mind if you are a cattleman looking for a bull.
The same cannot be said for the typical sheep farmer who is looking to buy a ram. To say the majority of farmers are overwhelmingly uninterested would be a massive understatement.
I’ve been performance-recording my sheep for four years and, in all that time, I’ve only sold a handful of rams on the strength of their figures. However, the more time that passes, the more I become convinced that performance-recording will bring huge improvements to my flock in the future.
“We’re stuck in a situation where the exponents of EBVs are regarded as a talentless bunch of nerds”
Common sense would tell you that collecting and analysing data can only be a positive thing. But, regrettably, the idea was given a negative slant in its infancy – by, ironically, some of its more zealous proponents.
The upshot was that performance-recording of sheep was firmly positioned as being an alternative breeding method rather than an aid to stock selection.
By denigrating the traditional system of selecting stock – by using your eyes, your hands and your own judgement – the recording camp blighted the concept right from the start.
Show-winning and probably expensive rams that had gone on to underperform were held up as examples of how the old system had been failing us for years. As a result, many of the most skilled breeders in the country were turned off from getting involved – and who could blame them?
Even the current field trials, which are being conducted to promote the use of recorded rams, do nothing to heal the division that exists between the leading lights in many breeds and the concept of using recorded data to improve their flocks.
The field trials, by their very nature, set out to prove that a farmer’s own personal choice of rams will not be as good as the high-index recorded rams that are used alongside them. There is also an underlying assumption that the recorded rams will be less attractive to the eye than the farmer’s choice.
Here lies the root of the problem. Who wants to find out that their own judgement is useless and that rams that are attractive are poor performers while the unattractive ones are better? I certainly don’t.
So we’re stuck in a situation where the leading lights of many breeds regard the exponents of EBVs as being a talentless bunch of nerds with no ability. Meanwhile, the breeders who place their faith in recording see their counterparts as being stuck in the dark ages and reluctant to embrace the future.
It’s a great shame that we’ve got ourselves into this situation because progress is going to be slow as a result. I don’t see why we can’t have it all, though.
The top breeders, who are so able at producing fantastic-looking stock, have nothing to fear from adding EBVs to their toolbox. Ultimately, any fool can weigh or measure a sheep – while they obviously still have a flare for using their own judgement.
Neale McQuistin is an upland sheep and beef farmer in south-west Scotland. He farms 365ha in partnership with his wife, much of which is under stewardship for wildlife.