A Next Generation View on Environment, Sustainability, Efficiency

Ed Brant, Flock 02616, Lincolnshire

With a large part of my career still ahead of me, I would like to spend it in the sheep industry. To do that I need a sheep that is versatile and can perform well whatever the future throws at us. The Lleyn is the ideal sheep.  It is impossible to predict the future, but we can take steps to make our flocks more resilient, to adapt and change to what is going on around us - which is the whole point of selective breeding.

In the short term there are areas that are likely to affect the industry as a whole, and individual flocks; sustainability, health, profitably, and environment (both the impact on our animals and the impact of the climate on our animals). These drivers all tend to be linked, more efficient production of lamb means we need lower inputs and reduced losses to produce the same or more lamb. This helps to improve sustainability and profitably. Genetics are key to making these improvements, they require no extra inputs, are permanent and can be improved each year, but it is a long term solution.

The first step is to set breeding goals, these could be different for each flock, but the overall aim is to breed a robust ewe, that can produce as much lamb as possible from the minimum amount of feed, land and labour.


The routes to achieve this are:

  • Higher lamb growth- means less time on farm and less feed used
  • Milking ability- faster lamb growth rate
  • Lamb survival- more lambs sold and less wastage
  • Prolificacy- more lamb produced per ewe
  • Ewe mature size- 55-65kg - lower feed costs  per ewe* 
  • Hit carcase spec- less wastage and trimming
  • Parasite resistance- animals with a high worm burden are less efficient so worm resistant sheep perform better and need less anthelmintics

Once breeding goals are set, ewes and rams can be selected for your flock.  When you are looking at health traits (lamb survival and worm resistance) it is important that the flock has experienced that pressure to show the best and worst performing individuals for those traits. Many of the most important traits are difficult to see or measure directly in sheep (lamb survival and litter size), so large datasets are needed to calculate this. Performance recording and producing Estimated Breeding Values (EBVs) are the best ways to select sheep based on their genetics. Lleyns are in a great position when it comes to performance recording as there is a huge dataset (~16,000 lambs a year) which helps to identify outstanding sheep. The Performance Recorded Lleyn Breeders group, and George Cullimore in particular, have been at the forefront of developing traits for parasite resistance.

In my flock, I try to keep the same system each year so I am sure of the general direction of travel. I set my breeding goal over a 5-10 year period, which gives time to see if the impact the breeding decisions I make impact positively on my flock over time. Many of the traits I am interested in can only be seen in the ewes, so it does take a while to see the benefits. Improvements in these traits (lamb survival, litter size and maternal ability) in my flock are driven by the selection of stock rams. Without performance recording information, this is very challenging, which is why I use the maternal EBVs to aid selection of my stock rams.

Each year I review the performance of my flock to identify any areas of weakness and what may have caused them, if it was environmental or a genetic factor. I think it is also important to put breeding sheep under pressure, so the best at handling a challenge rise to the top. For my flock, this is lambing outside in a purely forage system with a worm challenge at some point in the year. I aim to select rams from other flocks that are run in a similar way to our own, and that have good EBVs in the traits that match our breeding goals. I feel performance recording is an important part of improving the genetics of our flock and making them fit for the future - without this we would have little idea of the genetic merit of the flock or the progress being made.

*research has shown economic optimum for mature size Abacus bio report

By Ed Brant