Pedigree sheep producer Neil Howie, who farms at Alnwick in Northumberland, has won the EBLEX Most Progressive Flock Award for the Vendeen breed. The results are based on Signet records for 2008.
Neil Howie with one of his Vendeen rams
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.
The Lyham flock was established in 1986, when Mr Howie imported two ewe lambs from France. He has exploited the Vendeen’s prolificacy to help build up numbers and now runs 80 pedigree ewes.
He also has a small flock of Border Leicester sheep which are mated with commercial Scottish Blackface and Cheviot ewes. The Vendeen rams are used as terminal sires on the resulting crosses.
“When deciding which breed to go for, I wanted something hardy, prolific and that produced a good carcase,” Mr Howie explains. “The Vendeen scores highly on all these counts.”
The performance of the flock has been recorded since 1991 so that improvements in key traits such as growth rates and muscle depth could be monitored. Over the past 18 years, eight week weights have risen significantly, while muscle depth has increased from 30mm to 34mm, measured at the 21-week back-fat scan.
“The quicker lambs reach their target weights – the more profitable they will be,” says Mr Howie. “Similarly, the more meat they produce the better the financial returns. This is why I pay so much attention on these particular traits.”
The Vendeen rams are turned out with the ewes in early September to lamb indoors at the end of January. They are turned out in mid March and the lambs fed creep until weaning. They are weighed at eight weeks. Once they hit 42kg at around 12 weeks of age, half are sold to a local butcher. The best 25% males and females are retained until scanning at 21 weeks.
Past results, EBVs for growth and muscle depth, family background and looks, are all taken into account when selecting which lambs to keep for breeding – either at home or sold to pedigree or commercial farmers. Most of the rams are sold as shearlings, either at society sales or privately off the farm. Mr Howie also takes sheep to the Royal Show and Great Yorkshire Show to promote his stock and the breed in general.
When buying rams to breed with the pedigree Vendeen ewes, Mr Howie sources different bloodlines from France. He is a member of a sire reference scheme which gives him access to the top genetics. Last year he used the highest ranked ram with an index of over 400.
Commercial sheep producers such as Michael Jordon and Moyra Renner are also benefiting from Mr Howie’s determination to improve important production traits.
Mr Jordon has bought Vendeen rams from Mr Howie for 15 years – usually purchasing two a year to put across his flock of 650 Mules. He lambs indoors in March but is aiming to finish all lambs off grass – so fast growth is essential.
“The lambs from Neil’s rams have very good early performance off their mother’s milk, and they keep on growing well after weaning,” says Mr Jordon. “We will keep buying from him because the Vendeen cross really suits our system.”
Ms Renner, who runs 630 commercial breeding ewes on a neighbouring farm, agrees. “I have been buying recorded breeding stock from Neil for seven years because it is convenient – but more importantly because they are doing an excellent job for us. We are consistently hitting target carcase specification and achieving weights of between 20 to 21kg. We start selling at the end of June, and most have gone by the end of September.”
EBVs hold the key to progress
“Selecting and using rams with known, superior EBVs for key traits and a high overall terminal sire index, allows pedigree producers to advance their genetic base over a relatively short period of time,” says EBLEX sheep breeding specialist Samuel Boon.
“I congratulate Neil for the valuable work is doing with this breed. By focussing on, and recording production traits that really matter, he is not only improving his own flock, but also making it easier for commercial customers to find rams they know will have a positive impact on their enterprise.”
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