How UK farmers can tap into export market for sheep genetics

Exporting genetics is big business for the UK sheep industry. In 2021 an estimated 15,000 straws of semen and about 2,000 embryos were sold overseas.

The export market is growing, with new agreements with North America and South Africa, says Rob Grinnall, of the UK Export Certification Partnership (UKECP).

“The UK is on the verge of an agreement with South Africa, which has big potential,” Mr Grinnall told a recent webinar hosted by the National Sheep Association (NSA).

See also: Farm business outlook 2022: Sheep exports vital to maintain prices

The US is another new market for embryos after authorities lifted a ban in December on imports from countries where scrapie has been identified.

Popularity of UK genetics

There is a reason why overseas flock owners like UK genetics, says sheep farmer and NSA regional manager for Northern Ireland Edward Adamson.

“The UK has a great diversity of breeds, and our breeders excel at breed improvement. Buyers like our genetics and what we produce,” he says.

UK flocks are also most likely to meet veterinary requirements, he adds.

However, the loss of live sales of breeding stock to Europe caused by ongoing border issues since Brexit is a major blow.

Up to 24,000 sheep had been traded with the EU. Now live sales, in the hundreds, are virtually all to countries outside the EU.

What breeds are in demand?

The UK has more than 60 pure breeds of sheep and about 30 cross-bred dam lines.

There is demand for virtually all of these, but the Texel currently accounts for the highest number of sales, says Geraint Thomas, of sheep and goat AI company Animal Breeding (AB) Europe.

“Terminal sires like the Texel, Charollais and Suffolk are in demand, but so too are heritage breeds like the Kerryhill, and this week had an inquiry about the Derbyshire Gritstone,’’ he says.

“In the past few years there have been a number of requests for the newer composite, minority, and heritage breeds, such as the Exlana, Hampshire, and Wensleydale, so everyone is in there with a chance.’’

Who are the buyers?

Although there is demand from commercial farms, most buyers are pedigree flocks.

“It is quite an expensive process, so most buyers are going to be pedigree breeders,’’ says Mr Adamson.

The bulk of sales to date have been to New Zealand, Canada, Europe, Brazil, Mexico, Chile, US, Ireland and Paraguay.

What are the requirements of overseas breeders?

Volume and price are important.

Mr Thomas points out that it is not economic for the supplier or the purchaser to deal in exports of 10 doses of semen or five embryos.

“Orders should be in the region of more than 40 embryos or 100 doses of semen or it is simply uneconomic – volume of order is often the difference between success and failure,” he says.

What the donor animals look like in the show ring is important to many buyers, while performance figures will be a requirement for others.

“Those figures can swing buyers your way. Not everyone has these but there are a lot of ducks to line up for anyone wanting to get involved,’’ says Mr Adamson.

What breeders must consider if they want to export

Joining a health scheme is a given, as is the requirement to supply genetics from healthy, disease-free stock.

Most countries will have some requirement for scrapie monitoring or a scrapie genotype.

How to reach buyers

Social media is an essential tool for promoting genetics globally, but face-to-face contact with buyers can’t be beaten, Mr Adamson believes.

However, he points out that exports did not wane during the pandemic when travel and face-to-face contact at shows and other events have not been possible.

Photographs circulated through the media will also catch the eye of buyers – a photograph of Mr Adamson with a winning animal at a show led to an enquiry by a US purchaser.

“I consider modesty to be a virtue, but when you are selling genetics you have to highlight the achievements of your stock – no-one is going to do it for you,” he says.

There may be language barriers with potential buyers, but Leicestershire sheep farmer Charles Sercombe advises breeders to treat every enquiry seriously.

“Some callers can be put off by the cost but if they are serious, they will continue the discussion,’’ he says.

What are the export requirements?

Countries differ in their requirements, such as animals needing to quarantine prior to collection. Commonly this is for one month, but it can be as long as 120 days for exporting to the US.

There are multiple health requirements. For instance, Europe and Canada demand evidence of a scrapie or ARR-genotype monitoring scheme, while New Zealand requires the donor flock to be free from Jaagsiekte for five years.


£54K Exlana genetics to New Zealand

Exlana sheep breeders are proving that the export market can extend beyond pedigree breeders to commercial producers and ram breeding companies.

An order for 2,200 straws of semen – 15% of the total UK export – and 40 embryos worth more than £54,000 was exported to New Zealand in January.

The five donor rams were all in the top 15% of the genetic evaluation. They were owned by Sheep Improved Genetics (SIG) and owners and breeders of Exlana sheep, with AB Europe collecting and freezing the semen.

The germplasm went to a variety of buyers, including Mt Cass, a large hair-sheep operation with 8,000 ewes including a 1,200 recorded stud flock, as well as several individual breeders and ram breeding companies.

Tim White of SIG © Hugh Nutt

“It is a major export by any means,” says Tim White of SIG and Farmers Weekly Sheep Farmer of the Year 2021.

“Interestingly, it is an export of superior maternal UK genetics to New Zealand, which makes a nice change from the usual New Zealand-to-UK direction of travel.”

The company has previously exported 200 ewes and rams to Switzerland. Live exports have also gone to France, Germany, Belgium and the Netherlands. Orders are currently being processed for most EU countries, Norway and the US, in addition to more orders from New Zealand.

SIG has Europe’s, if not the world’s, largest and most recorded population of wool-shedding genetics, according to Mr White.

“Farmers worldwide are beginning to realise how uneconomic wool production is and the Kiwis know the value of well-recorded stock, which is why they have come to us.

“Buyers are particularly interested in improving the fecundity, lamb survival and parasite resistance, which Exlana have been improving without increasing their mature ewe size, which is critical to flock efficiency.”