Lleyn flock wins top award for genetic progress

Nelless_1.jpgSheep farmer Duncan Nelless has won the EBLEX Improved Flock Award for 2013 for the Lleyn breed. He farms at Thistleyhaugh Farm, near Morpeth in Northumberland.

Organised through the Sheep Better Returns Programme, this award is presented to the English performance recorded flock that has shown the most impressive improvement in genetic merit over a 12-month period, within the breed.

Thistleyhaugh Farm is very much a family business run on 396ha (970 acres), with 286ha (700 acres) owned, and 110ha (270 acres) of rented permanent pasture. The land is situated on a valley bottom 60-150m above sea level.

Duncan takes the lead with the sheep while his brother Angus runs an Aberdeen Angus commercial suckler enterprise. They grow spring cereals with grass leys in rotation and make silage and hay for winter feed. There is also a poultry business processing 6,000 birds a year through an on-farm abattoir. The brothers also join a contract shearing team.

The farm has been organic since 2005. The pedigree Lleyn flock was established in 1995, as a replacement for a previous flock of Mules which produced lambs for slaughter. While performing well, the brothers wanted to change breed so they could run a high health status flock with MV accreditation. Operating a closed system also allows them to set their own breeding objectives.

Duncan started breeding Lleyns with the purchase of in-lamb ewe lambs from John Geldard. He likes their maternal abilities and easy-care characteristics, which is important when running multiple enterprises on one farm.  Ewe numbers have risen gradually by buying ewe lambs or shearlings, and keeping home-bred replacements. The last externally reared ewes were purchased in 2003. The flock now stands at 1200 pedigree Lleyn ewes and 540 ewe lambs.

The rams go in with the ewes at the end of November, staying for 34 days and taken out on New Year's Day. The ewe lambs stay with the ram for one cycle. From this 70% are expected to be pregnant to start lambing from 20 April. The ewes are not flushed and all are kept on a level plane of nutrition from mating to lambing.

In mid-February the ewes are pregnancy scanned (target 180% for ewes; 98% for ewe lambs), given a pre-lambing shear and housed briefly to acclimatise. They are turned out during the last few days March, onto fields that offer clean grazing, adequate grass cover and good shelter.  At birth all lambs are tagged and EID recorded against their dams. No concentrates are fed to any of the sheep and the lambs are weaned at 100 days.

EID pays off
Duncan started EID recording in 2007, collecting a wide range of figures including parentage, litter size, mortality, assisted lambings, birth treatments, udder conformation, mastitis, maternal instinct and lamb weights at key growth stages.

In 2009 he joined Signet and began submitting lamb weights at birth, eight weeks of age and 21 weeks of age. He also ultrasound scans lambs at 21 weeks to identify animals that are superior for carcase traits of economic importance, such as muscle depth across the loin.  "As we had already been recording the flock using EID, it took a long time to get all the data into the Signet database," says Duncan . "But it was definitely worth it as we can now draw on it to quantify our genetic progress, and analyse trends for individual animals. Figures are a very useful management tool."

EBVs improve flock performance
Duncan selects replacement ewe lambs based on their maternal Estimated Breeding Values (EBVs). These determine prolificacy as well as an animal's ability to produce and rear lambs up to eight weeks of age. As no concentrates are fed, there is no buffer for milking at lambing, so the ewes must perform well on their own and be good mothers. Any ewes not performing are noted and culled, or moved to a 'B' flock for crossing with either a Charollais or Hampshire Down ram.

When buying a new stock ram Duncan tends to buy from performance recorded flocks he knows. Rams are used in single sire mating groups, where rams are rotated after one cycle. A team of seven mature rams is used, as well as nine tup lambs to provide progeny testing for ram lambs coming through the system.

All the commercially important traits have improved significantly since 2009 due to selective breeding based on performance figures (see table below).

Average flock EBV Values

8 week weight EBV (kg)
20 week weight EBV (kg)
Muscle depth EBV (mm)
Maternal Ability (Milk) EBV (kg)
Litter Size (Prolificacy)

Raw weights
Slaughter weight (kg)

The lambs now achieve an average daily liveweight gain of 340g/day at 100 days of age, an increase of 50g/day. Duncan believes that 30g of this is down to EBV recording, and 20g is due to better grassland management.

He has also found that assisted lambing instances have decreased from 9.5% to 3.5%.

Ram sales
Most of the rams are sold as shearlings to commercial farmers running closed flocks. They are largely sold off the farm, and marketed by word of mouth. Potential customers also use the BASCO website to search for animals' EBVs and Indexes. Of the 27 rams sold last year, nine were sold through society sales.  "It is heartening to see that commercial producers are starting to take an interest in EBVs," says Duncan . "I am very happy to explain the figures behind an animal to those with less of a grasp on the data."

Commenting on winning the award, Duncan said he was really surprised and very pleased. He put his success partly down to using EBVs.  "Much faster progress can be made when breeding decisions are taken based on figures," says Duncan . "Using a team of high quality rams and culling older ewes also helps."

Satisfied customers
Mark Gray at Broome House in County Durham , runs sheep and beef enterprises with 1200 purebred commercial Lleyn ewes and 500 LLeyn ewes crossed to a Suffolk ram.  After FMD he needed to restock and bought ewes from Duncan . He has been back many times since, partly because Duncan has such detailed records and knows so much about each animal. He also trusts him as a breeder and acknowledges that his stockmanship is second to none.  "I have taken a lot of time and effort breeding small problems out of my flock, so the last thing I want to do is buy them in again," says Mark. "Buying from Duncan gives me confidence, as I know he can provide rams that will compliment my ewes, giving me the maternal attributes I am looking for."  

Neighbour and long-time friend, Graham Rutherford buys two or three pedigree Lleyn rams a year from Duncan . He runs an organic commercial flock of 1700 mostly purebred Lleyn, alongside contract rearing 3000 pigs on 364ha (900 acres) at Long Horseley, near Morpeth.  The ewes are housed through the winter and fed red clover silage, and turned out for lambing in April. All lambs are finished off grass or forage crops and achieve 18-19kg deadweight and grade around R 3L. The first lambs are sold in August. The rest are weaned and finished off fodder rape/red clover aftermath.  "Our farming system is all about rearing from a forage-based diet as the cost of organic feeds is prohibitive," explains Graham. "We aim to run an economic enterprise and the Lleyns are the perfect breed for doing this.  "We benefit greatly from the fact that Duncan monitors and records everything in so much detail," Graham admits. "Using his recorded rams is certainly producing the right kind of sheep for our system."

Invest in superior genetics
"One of the major benefits of improving the genetics of a flock is the cumulative and permanent way it lifts performance," says EBLEX sheep breeding specialist Samuel Boon.  "The time and effort involved will pay dividends for years - not just in the winning flock, but also in the flocks that buy rams from them.
"It is a difficult time for sheep producers right now - but the difference between choosing the right recorded ram for the farm, or an animal of average breeding merit, could be worth £1,000 or more. So now is a good time to invest in superior genetics; not to ignore them.  "Duncan has certainly taken the right approach to establishing his Lleyn flock. By recording and using EBVs, he has found rams with the most profitable breeding potential for his pedigree enterprise, and that of his customers. I congratulate him whole-heartedly on his success."

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