Pedigree sheep producer Robin Johnson, who farms at Northallerton, North Yorkshire, has won the EBLEX Most Progressive Flock Award for the Bleu du Maine breed. The results are based on Signet records for the Winholme Flock for 2008.
Some of Robin Johnson’s award winning Bleu du Maine ewes.
Organised through the Sheep Better Returns Programme, this is presented to the performance recorded flock that has shown the most impressive improvement in genetic merit, over a twelve month period, within the breed. Mr Johnson also won the award last year.
One hundred ewes share the 108ha grass and arable farm with 130 dairy cows. The original flock was bred up in the mid 1980’s and run alongside 230 Bleu cross ewes. Mr Johnson started performance testing in 1996 and joined the Sire Reference Scheme in 1999. This assesses and selects the top Bleu du Maine rams in the country for type and production traits.
In 2001, the flock was taken out with a contiguous cull in the foot and mouth outbreak, but was re-established in 2002. Half the new ewes came from performance recorded flocks; the others from a top show flock that was reduced at the time. The flock is now totally purebred and closed to reduce the risk of buying in disease.
“It was significant that we won the award last year because it was the first year since reforming that we were able to breed only from the best ewes. Before then we were serving everything to build the numbers back up,” explains Mr Johnson. “We now have control over our breeding strategy again, and this is allowing us to take significant steps forward genetically.”
Mr Johnson relies heavily on performance data to manage the flock, and says it is impossible to judge a good sheep on looks alone. The figures show that his lambs are weighing 2.5kg more than the scheme average at their eight-week weighing than they did ten years ago, which is of real commercial benefit to the customers who buy his stock.
“Breed type and correctness is the cement between the bricks – but production traits are the real building blocks, every generation adds another layer,” Mr Johnson says. “When producing pedigree stock, the sheep have to be 100% right – with the emphasis on performance traits over looks.”
When buying rams for his own flock, Mr Johnson examines breed index figures and Estimated Breeding Values (EBVs) – in particular those for eight week weights and eye muscle. The three rams he used in 2008 had eye muscle depths of 35mm, 36mm and 40mm.
Tupping takes place from August, with lambing starting in January. Lambing percentage is running at 200%.
Ewes and lambs are turned out onto clean grazing once the lambs are strong enough to cope with the weather. They have access to creep feed while suckling, and are weighed at eight weeks of age. At 14 weeks, the ram lambs are weaned and the best 10 to 15% selected. The rest are sold for slaughter while market prices remain high.
All the female lambs are kept until weighing at 21 weeks. Those not achieving a target performance level are sold. At weaning, cull ewes are selected for slaughter and sold.
Mr Johnson receives a lot of enquiries for ewes and rams from commercial producers as well as those with pedigree flocks – although numbers sold in recent years were limited due to re-stocking. Winning the Male Champion and Reserve Breed Champion at the 2008 Masham Sheep Fair with a shearling ram, has helped promote the ‘Winholme’ flock still further. Mr Johnson considers showing to be an excellent tool for promoting the sheep – but not for developing the breed!
EBVs hold the key to progress
“Buying and using rams with known, superior EBVs, allows pedigree producers to advance their genetic base and produce the type of animal their customers are looking for, over a relatively short period of time,” says EBLEX sheep breeding specialist Samuel Boon.
“I doubly congratulate Robin for the consistent and valuable work he is doing with the Bleu du Maine breed. By focussing on and recording production traits that really matter, he is making it much easier for his commercial customers to find a ram they know will have a positive impact on their enterprise.”
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