Ram sales are now in full swing with commercial flocks seeking top-quality genetics. Jeremy Hunt looks at how one top Suffolk breeder produces rams in the top 1%
Naturally reared Suffolks in the Essie flock are achieving some of the breed’s highest performance figures – and they are hitting the spot with commercial tup buyers looking to improve lamb quality.
But as well as meeting the growing demand among commercial prime lamb producers for tups with superior terminal sire performance figures, half the females in Irene Fowlie’s 120-ewe Essie flock rank in the top 1% for maternal index figures.
“The aim is to produce the complete package – Suffolk sheep with their good conformation and combine that with high EBV index figures.
“Whether it’s rams or ewes, the performance figures are at the heart of what we do – but the sheep have to look right, too. There is no question about retaining a high-figured sheep if it doesn’t meet our strict criteria on conformation,” says Mrs Fowlie.
“Selecting sires for our own use isn’t easy. I want figures, good looks and high health status – a tall order,” she adds.
The flock, which is now in the breed’s top 1% on Terminal Sire index figures, has a clear remit: “We produce naturally reared, fleshy shearlings with length and width and good skins. The emphasis of our breeding programme is on growth rate, conformation and size for both terminal sire and maternal use.”
The Essie flock, which is based near Fraserburgh, Aberdeenshire, has a list of impressive achievements. Last year it won the Brookes Cup (for flocks over 100 ewes) in the Suffolk Sheep Society’s flock competition; its average scan weight is 12.55 which is in the breed’s top 1% and its average terminal sire EBV is 4.71 – also in the breed’s top 1%.
This high-health status flock lambs in mid-January to mid-February and while natural service is preferred some AI is also undertaken.
Ewes are housed at night in the run-up to lambing, but always have access to outside. Ewes and lambs are usually turned out within three weeks of lambing.
Lambs are offered creep feed from the start and are weaned at around 16 weeks old. They are scanned at 20 weeks old, but receive no feed after that. Rams and ewe lambs are split when they are sheared in July.
They remain on grass all winter and are fed “a little bit of extra feed” of home-grown oats if the weather dictates. Supplementary feeding with oats is reintroduced in the following summer prior to the tups being sold as shearlings at the Kelso and Dingwall rams sales.
“We believe that by maturing naturally our shearlings achieve their mature weight, size and strength without being pushed and go on to perform consistently and are long-livers.”
Following performance recording weighings and scans at eight and 20 weeks, a group of 15 of the ram lambs are taken to Edinburgh for CT scanning.
“This allows us to measure meat to bone ratio in the lambs more precisely and produces a more accurate index measurement to assist us in maximising the accuracy of our genetic breeding values,” says Mr Fowlie.
In 2012 the flock topped the Kelso sale average for registered Suffolk shearlings and as well as winning more UK customers, the flock’s export demand is growing with Essie females already established in Romania and semen used by Canadian breeders.
“But while our aim is to produce tups for the commercial prime lamb producer, we’re seeing more UK pedigree flocks now coming to us for tups. Commercial buyers want rams with superior conformation and increasingly they want the performance figures, too.
“We’re using performance recording as a tool – it’s not the be all and end all. You can’t just base breeding on figures – the sheep have got to look right, too.”
The Essie flock’s ewes have a reputation for being exceptionally milky – just one of the female traits selected for.
“Ease of lambing, lamb vigour and the time it takes for a lamb gets to its feet to suck are very important traits that we have focused on over the years by genetic selection based on performance figures. Our good eight-week weights reflect our ewes’ milking ability and the vigour of the lambs at birth.”
Lambing percentage is around 160-170 and lamb birthweights average 6kg. All the flock’s ewes are in the top 10% of recorded Suffolks for Terminal Index.
One “repeat” buyer of Essie tups has found a role for their genetics when used on Cheviot ewes.
“We have one buyer who has over 900 Suffolk-cross Hill Cheviot ewes sired by our tups.
He then puts another terminal sire on top to produce a top-quality butcher’s lamb. So as well as prime lamb producers benefiting from the terminal sire traits, flock owners are also discovering the value of the performance recorded maternal traits of our sheep.”
Figures for the last 10 years of recording show that in 2004 the flock’s Terminal Index was 0.86, but has now increased to 4.71.with the average of all the lambs in the top 1% on Terminal Sire index figures.
But things are changing in the way the figures are analysed.
“For many years lambs were heavily penalised for fat levels, but there has been a realisation that these fast growing lambs do need to have some fat cover or they would never finish.
“So we don’t want to get them too lean. The semen we’ve used most recently was based on the rams figures for high-muscle depth and fat to combine with our high-growth rate and good maternal figures.”
Bred the UK’s top performance recorded ewe lamb. The lamb had a 20-week Scan weight EBV of 19.09 – higher than any of the 2014 recorded ram lambs.
- Bred the breed’s top ranking ram lamb with a Terminal Index of 6.96 and a Maternal Index of 290.
- All stock sires used in 2013 were in the breed’s top 1% based on Terminal Index figures.
- Bred the top ram lamb on performance. Essie Gold Star achieved a new breed record with a Terminal Index of 7.03 and now has lambs in Canada, Romania and the Czech Republic.
- Bred the top ewe lamb which is now the top-recorded Suffolk female.