Rigorous selection doubles ram sales for upland stud

Exacting standards on the maternal ability and commercial performance of breeding stock have grown the customer base of a Scottish farm’s Texel and Lleyn rams.

Neil and Debbie McGowan of Incheoch, near Blairgowrie, 2020 Farmers Weekly Sheep Farmers of the Year, have doubled the volume and value of rams at their September “Working Genes” on-farm sale.

Last year, the farm sold 97 rams at a £1,295 average.

A simple mantra has given the McGowans an unwavering commercial focus on selection. Their breeding programme strives to find sheep that:

  1. Act and behave like sheep
  2. Do a job to be proud of
  3. Do it efficiently, time and again.

Farmers Weekly spoke to the McGowans to find out what this means in practice.

See also: How to work out ewe efficiency and what it can tell you

Farm Facts

  • 1,300 breeding ewes of which 800 Lleyns and 100 Texels are Signet-recorded
  • 500ha (1,236 acres), of which 364ha (899 acres) are grass and 48ha (119 acres) are rough
  • 125ha (309 acres) in forage crops, red clover or rotational grass and about half let out
  • 220 Luing and Simmental cattle recorded
  • Prime lambs sold deadweight to Woodheads, Turriff

Flock structure

A key part of progress with the Lleyn flock is the probationary flock of about 200 head, into which all shearlings go.

Depending on performance, they are either promoted into the 350-head stud flock– from which rams are sold – or relegated to a 500-head commercial flock to be tupped by a Texel.

Of the 2019 shearlings that were mated in 2020, roughly one-third were promoted, one-third stayed in the probation flock and one-third were culled, demoted or died. 

“We try to balance proven genetics and genetic gain by using young ram lambs from proven long-lived ewes,” says Mr McGowan.

“The benefit of having a terminal flock allows us to remove sheep from the stud flock at uneconomically strict levels, but still produce prime lambs from them.”

Ewe efficiency

If the McGowans recorded nothing else, ewe efficiency would be the piece of data they would record and monitor.

For example, a 69kg ewe at tupping that weaned two 33kg lambs has weaned 66kg (95.6%) of her tupping weight.

This trait includes scanning percentage and prolificacy, lambing ease, mothering ability, milkiness and the ability to thrive in the environment, explains Mr McGowan.

Currently, 58% (203) of the 350 Lleyn stud ewes rear 70% of weight or more and 30% (105) wean more than their weight.

Weaning weight is taken at 100 days (from mean lambing date) using the weigh crate, with weights recorded via electronic identification (EID) technology and put into a spreadsheet.

Efficiency is displayed as a decimal (for example 70% = 0.7) for each ewe.

Maternal behaviour scoring

Three traits are recorded in all the Lleyn ewes.

  • Lambing ease Three scores are given from -2 to 0. There are no positive scores for this trait as an easy lambing is seen as standard and essential for customers.
  • Ewe behaviour Ewes are scored on a scale of five, from -2 to +2. A -2 is a ewe that neglects lambs and runs out of sight at tagging. 0 is a calm ewe that licks her lambs well and stays close and a +2 fights hard to get her lamb back.
  • Lamb vigour Again, ewes are scored from -2 to +2. The scoring has developed over the years. A +2 score is given for very lively lambs with a hard, wiry birth coat. 

Culling sheep with poor scores has resulted in much more attentive sheep, easier lambers and more vigorous lambs after the system was developed with the help of sheep consultant John Vipond.

“Taboos” such as lambing shearlings on their own, lambing in fields with footpaths and taking the snacker into lambing paddocks can now all be broken as ewes are very maternal. 

Notebooks are carried when lambing checks are done in the morning and again in the afternoon. A score is given for each and entered into the flock’s spreadsheet.

Ewe behaviour is the most important score to monitor so poor mothers are removed, while the least important is lamb vigour, explains Mr McGowan.

Culling and demotion

Prolapsing is on the farm’s culling “naughty list”, although many other undesirable traits are kept out of the stud flock by the terminal flock.

Repeatedly lame sheep are culled, but sheep with difficulties in mobility or a badly shaped foot or hoof are demoted to the terminal sire flock.

Sheep should be challenged, and for this reason a foot-rot vaccine is not used and foot-rot elimination has never been a goal.

Their involvement with two mastitis projects with the University of Warwick taught them to be strict on long teats and dropped udders, but less picky on lumps (which can be signs of clinical or chronic mastitis).

Tight udders, short teats and good wool cover on the udder are the aims; ewes with poor udder and conformation are demoted to Texel rams.

The McGowans see good record-keeping on these functional areas as a key part of improving the flock.

“Lay out the challenges, set the parameters, and then the right ewes select themselves and the ones that need culling make themselves known quite easily if you can keep good records,” says Mrs McGowan.

Estimated breeding values

Sheep are Signet-recorded with birth, eight-week and mature weight, lamb survival, litter size, maternal ability, carcass traits, longevity, parasite resistance and lambing interval all recorded.

The McGowans believe in estimated breeding values (EBVs) for sheep and use them to inform tup purchases and to ensure breeding policies are balanced.

For example, a very prolific ewe might run with a slightly less prolific sire to optimise scanning rates, or lean sheep can go to a high fat depth tup to correct that trait.

Signet is also helping the flock make progress in tricky areas, such as maternal ability, lamb survival and worm resistance.

Signet takes fat and muscle ultrasound scans, and a small sample of Texels are scanned with a computerised tomography scanner in Edinburgh.

Signet data works automatically through weigh scales, a panel reader and the flock software programme.

A hand-held tag reader records lamb gender, date of birth, sire and dam, birth weight and lambing ease. 

Bringing it all together

Many breeding decisions are done in the office on data, matching up females to males and deciding which sheep should be promoted to the stud flock, culled, demoted to the commercial flock, or kept on probation.

Spreadsheets of inbreeding checks (5-6% maximum), maternal behaviour scores, weaning efficiency for the past three years and Signet EBVs are all printed off to make decisions on the day.

When a sheep comes up a race the EID reader will often prompt the drafting decision, with a visual and physical assessment being the final important stage.


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