Profits are boosted by better breeding
A new trial means hill
sheep producers in Northern
Ireland will have better
information to help make
Emma Penny reports
BETTER quality and more quantity should be the outcome of a new breeding trial currently running on six hill and four lowland farms in Northern Ireland.
The trial, run by the Agricultural Research Institute of Northern Ireland, is the first to be funded through Northern Irelands new Agricultural Research and Development Council, explains project co-ordinator and Hillsborough-based sheep specialist Alistair Carson.
"The research is funded by a 5p a lamb levy paid by producers, and so all research projects are decided upon by producers.
"This project aims to give hill farmers better information on breeds in order to make marketing and breeding decisions – output and quality are the keys. About 80% of ewes in the province are on LFA land, so increasing output is crucial."
Output, lambing difficulties and carcass quality are the main focuses of the project. Each of the six hill farms is running 240 ewes for the project – 120 Scottish Blackfaces and 120 Wicklow Cheviots.
"We are comparing the two breeds to see which performs best as a dam. However, several strains of Blackface are used in Ireland, with a move towards the Newton Stewart and Lanark types to improve hardiness and finishing ability, so we are also looking at the difference between strains."
Sire breeds will also come under scrutiny in the trial, with each ewe breed divided into 40-ewe lots and crossed with a chosen sire.
Blackface ewes are put either to a Blackface and bred pure, to a Bluefaced Leicester to produce a Mule, or to a Texel tup. Cheviot ewes are bred pure to a Cheviot tup, crossed with a Suffolk ram or, like the Blackface ewes, put to a Texel.
"This means the two ewe breeds are cross-linked through the Texel," explains Dr Carson. "We weigh and condition score ewes before dividing them into mating groups to ensure each is similar."
At lambing, farmers are responsible for recording birth date, weight and any difficulties experienced. Lambs are then weighed at regular intervals throughout the season.
"We will bring a proportion of lambs back to Hillsborough for finishing to reflect stratification within the sheep industry in Northern Ireland."
Finishing rations will be based on high forage – 80% forage, 20% concentrate – or high concentrate – 20% forage, 80% concentrate – rations. "Both methods are used in Northern Ireland, but these are obviously more extreme than most producers would use."
Lambs are being sent to the abattoir at different slaughter weights, and data is being collected right through to meat quality, says Dr Carson.
"We have some results for the first lambing, but will wait for at least another years data before drawing out any initial conclusions."
Following on from the hill project, some of the crossbred ewe lambs are being moved onto one of four lowland units, he explains.
"Its all very well to say that using a Texel will improve carcass quality, but we need to assess the potential of hill ewe lambs from this cross – if we change the stratification of breeds it may have a major effect on lowland breeds."
Hill producers should have better information to help select appropriate breeds after completion of a Northern Irish breeding programme.
• Examining different crosses.
• Potential increased output.
• Better quality carcass.