Members of the UK Sheep Veterinary Society (SVS) have been told that the selection of breeding sheep on the basis of their performance-recording figures is critically important.
In fact, this approach should be the primary development policy espoused by all flock owners.
The man delivering this fundamentally important message was Campbell Tweed, the owner of the Ballycoose EasyCare flock.
He farms with his wife Isobel at Cairncastlein, Co. Antrim, overlooking Larne Lough. SVS members recently visited Ballycoose Farm as part of their 2022 Spring Conference itinerary.
“Purchasing rams and other heavily fed breeding stock in a sale ring without performance data is self-defeating. For the most part, these animals have been specifically fed and managed in the run-up to a show or sale event,” said Campbell.
“What a ram or ewe actually looks like beyond being structurally correct has no relevance in the context of their maternal ability to deliver in a commercial setting.
“The decision to breed from a particular animal should only be taken on the basis of its actual performance figures. This is the only parameter that counts when it comes to delivering real flock improvement.”
Campbell records with both Signet and Sheep Ireland.
Significantly, the Co. Antrim man believes that increasing numbers of farmers are now actively seeking comprehensive performance figures when it comes to deciding which new bloodlines best suit their flock development needs.
The Ballycoose enterprise comprises 3,000 EasyCare breeding ewes. The flock is totally self-contained, with all lambs not going for breeding brought through to finishing weights.
The entire enterprise is managed by three full-time staff. This, in itself, is a very powerful illustration of what ‘easy care’ sheep management is all about.
Campbell took the decision of going down the self-shedding route after the wool price crash of 1999.
His initial foray in this direction centred on the acquisition of Wiltshire Horn rams, which he purchased in Northern Ireland. Up to that point the Ballycoose flock comprised a mix of Newton Stewart Blackface and Colbred ewes.
Within a relatively short period of years, he fully committed to the EasyCare breed, the first of which he imported form Wales.
The EasyCare is a composite breed of sheep comprising mostly Welsh Mountain and Wiltshire Horn bloodlines. It was developed almost 60 years ago, with breed members specifically selected for their wool shedding and polled traits.
Ten years prior to his switch to self-shedding sheep, Campbell had committed to complete animal recording within the flock.
“There is no splitting of the flock into groups. Each lamb [was] ID (identification) tagged at birth and, thereafter, electronically recorded on a regular basis throughout the period of its stay on the farm,” he explained.
“From a breeding point of view, we cull on a consistent basis.
“Obviously, we will assist any ewe that has a problem lambing. However, that female and her lambs will not be retained for further breeding purposes. Nor will we sell these animals on to other breeders; they are all sent for slaughter at the appropriate time.
“We take a similar approach, where lameness is concerned. Obviously, any animal can succumb to a problem of this kind. However, if the issue arises again, after the initial treatment, it will not be retained for breeding,” he said.
Campbell believes that EasyCare sheep have a key role to play on sheep farms of all types.
“They are particularly suited to flock owners who work out from 9.00a.m to 5.00p.m between Monday and Friday,” he continued.
“To a large extent, the sheep can manage themselves.”
Campbell is currently selling both breeding EasyCare ewes and lambs to flock owners throughout Ireland and the UK, adding:
“We are offering fully recorded stock that can add significantly to any sheep enterprise.
“Demand for EasyCare bloodlines is on the up and this trend shows no sign of diminishing.”
He is quick to confirm that the self-shedding ability of the breed is a big selling point.
“Back when Blackface sheep were our main focus, we would have sold 7t of wool on an annual basis,” Campbell further explained.
“Last year, that figure dropped to around 600kg.”
On the back of the commitment to comprehensive sheep recording, demand for Ballycoose bloodlines is increasing on a truly international basis.
Last year six EasyCare rams were selected by Shrewsbury based Farmgene Ltd. from the Ballycoose flock.
The 25 ewes from Ballycoose produced 250 high-quality embryos for the New Zealand market.
“The sale of breeding stock, both rams and ewes, is an important driver for the business,” Campbell Tweed concluded.
“Animals are initially selected on the basis of their performance figures, after which full physical and health inspections are carried out.”