26 September 1997


The northern hemispheres biggest sheep improvement project has obtained funding for a further five years. Robert Davies reports

THE second successful application for EU Objective 5b cash and matched funding from the Welsh Office will underwrite phase two of the Welsh Sheep Strategy. This is described as a co-ordinated action plan for the genetic improvement of the Welsh sheep flock.

Money from MLC, the Development Board for Rural Wales and the Welsh Institute of Rural Studies has boosted total available funding to £2.3m. Support agencies, colleges and research establishments are also providing expertise, and several commercial companies are sponsoring sections of the work.

Nine group breeding schemes, which started as long ago as 1976, and eight hill ram central performance tests, which came under one umbrella during the three-year phase one of the strategy, will continue to be the central core of the project.

But the most rapid progress will be in nucleus improvement flocks on commercial hill ram breeding farms. Over 120 flockmasters have already used back fat and eye muscle scanning to select 50-60 ewes from which replacements will be bred using top rams.

Recording is taking place for the first time on many of these units. In time there will be special sales of superior stock from these farms, and those involved in performance testing. Money has been set aside to promote the beneficial results of the improvement work, both in the UK and Europe.

"With the nucleus flocks, which include all the major hill breeds in Wales, and central ram performance testing we have the simple basic structure needed for significant improvement of hill flocks," says Huw Thomas, MLCs Welsh regional manager.

Several of the group schemes have begun sire referencing. More are planning to follow and will be given strategy encouragement and support. Farmers will be offered WIRS training in record-keeping and heat synchronisation needed for an expansion in the use of AI.

New technology such as multiple ovulation and embryo transfer is already being used to accelerate the rate of genetic improvement, and is working as well with mountain breeds as with terminal sire breeds. Work on improving long wool breeds like the Bluefaced Leicester and Border Leicester that sire Mules and halfbreds which dominate prime lamb production will continue.

This will compliment and run in parallel with a major WIRS Mule improvement project for which MAFF is the main source of funding.

"All the components of a successful, wide ranging genetic improvement programme are now in place. Customers for draft ewes, breeding stock and prime lambs are demanding better sheep. The Welsh Sheep strategy is a blueprint for the industry to work towards providing what the markets want," Mr Thomas claims.

"It exploits both the breeding arts that achieved so much in the past, and the new tools science has provided. At its simplest it encourages flock monitoring and basing sheep selection on figures. At the other extreme are farmers using all available technology to capitalise on their breeds gene pool.

"Success will depend on good co-operation between breeders – who will continue to be commercial competitors – scientists, and the agencies that support the industry. The whole project has a firm financial footing, and is getting backing from every sector of sheep farming."

To encourage all Welsh sheep farmers to think about flock improvement, strategy organisers have published a new guide to the use of estimated breeding values, and the benefits of using high index sires in commercial flocks. This will be posted to every registered producer.

Acknowledging the improvement work done in New Zealand, it is also offering three travel scholarships a year to people involved full time in the Welsh sheep industry. Successful applicants will be expected to spend four to six weeks studying breeding, research, extension work and marketing, and provide full reports on their return. &#42

As part of phase two of the Welsh Sheep Strategy, producers will be offered training in record-keeping and heat synchronisation needed for an expansion in the use of AI.

All the components of a successful, wide ranging genetic improvement programme are now in place, says MLC Welsh regional manager Huw Thomas.


&#8226 Encouraging recording.

&#8226 Use of new technology important.

&#8226 Scholarships to New Zealandon offer.

The group breeding schemes

&#8226 Glynllifon Border Leicesters – 70-ewe nucleus flock based at Glynllifon College, Gwynedd. Selection index gives heaviest weighting to maternal ability and litter size.

&#8226 CAMDA (Welsh Mountain) – 600-ewe nucleus flock at Pentrefoelas, Gwynedd, managed to improve weaning and mature weights. Signet hill index used; awards 60% of points for lamb growth, 24% for maternal ability, 15% for mature size, and 1% for litter size.

&#8226 Llysfasi Welsh Mountain – Signet hill index is used for the 300-ewe nucleus flock at Llysfasi College, Denbighshire, in an attempt to reverse the fall in popularity of draft ewes from north-east Wales.

lBRIDFA Suffolks – based at the Institute of Grassland and Environmental Researchs Aberystwyth farm, selection in the 50-ewe flock is based on growth rate and lean index. The group is in the Suffolk sire referencing scheme.

&#8226 Penglas Bluefaced Leicesters – the 65-ewe flock is located at one of Aberystwyth Universitys farms. Selection concentrates on improving carcass quality, without compromising prolificacy, mothering ability, growth rate, mature size and structural soundness.

&#8226 Beulah Speckled Face Group – originally selection concentrated on higher prolificacy, but, having achieved a 190% lambing average, the aim in the 190-ewe flock run at the WIRS is now to improve carcass quality.

&#8226 Antur Texels – also based at the WIRS, the 300-ewe Texel sire reference scheme flock includes British and Dutch bloodlines. It has developed a reputation for the production of high quality registered and commercial sires.

&#8226 CAMP (Welsh Mountain) – the 300-ewe flock run at ADAS Pwllpeiran. Selection aims to improve carcass conformation while maintaining hardiness and mothering ability.

&#8226 The Lleyn Group Scheme – litter size and carcass traits are given a high priority in the 150-ewe flock run at a Coleg Powys farm near Brecon.

Central performance testing of hill rams

A group of young rams from different breeders are grazed together from October until May on good lowland pasture. Identical management allows every animal to express its own growth potential.

Rams are weighed at the start, the middle and end of test. Eye muscle and fat depth are ultrasonically scanned at the end of the test. Each ram is given a selection index based on the three measurements with 50% weighting given to eye muscle depth, 30% to growth rate and 20% to fat depth.

At the final weigh-in rams are also assessed on breed type. Tups are returned to their owners, who are free to decide whether to use or ignore test results. Many high index rams are now used on nucleus flocks.

&#8226 Breeds testing at the Welsh Institute of Rural Studies, Aberystwyth

Elan Valley and Cwmdauddwr Welsh Mountain – 60 rams a year.

The Welsh Hill Speckled Face – 60 rams a year.

Cymdeithas Defaid Mynydd Ceredigion Welsh Mountain – 30 rams a year.

&#8226 Breeds testing at Gelli Aur College Farm

Brecknock Hill Cheviot – 50 rams a year.

Afan Valley South Wales Welsh Mountain – 60 rams a year.

Talybont on Usk Welsh Mountain – 50 rams a year.

&#8226 Breed tested at Pencoed College

South Wales Mountain – 50 rams a year.

&#8226 Breed tested by the University of Wales, Bangor

Welsh Mountain – 130 rams a year

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