Artikel over Charles Harding

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Joanne Pugh met sheep farmers Charles Harding and Peter Baber at Mr Harding’s farm in Nuneaton, Warwickshire, to find out about a new group of breeders that will be exhibiting at Sheep 2008.

Having announced its inception at ScotSheep in early June, the Premier Suffolk Breeders (PSB) will exhibit for the first time at the NSA Sheep Event.

There has long been an elite breeding group linked to the Suffolk Sheep Society – the Suffolk Sire Reference Scheme (SSRS) – but this new group replaces that, bringing with it revised targets and a clear marketing strategy.

Most of this revolves around giving a clearer message to its target audience of commercial sheep farmers, letting them know PSB members can supply rams suited to commercial enterprises.

Peter Baber, a South West sheep farmer and first chairman of PSB, said he did not feel it was a case that SSRS had not been producing what commercial farmers wanted, rather it had not promoted the fact well enough.

Also, commercial producers’ needs had changed since the creation of SSRS, with the supply and cost of labour becoming a far greater concern, while science had moved forward to enable selection for new traits, he said.

Therefore, moving on from SSRS gave them the opportunity to embrace all that and approach the market afresh.

There are currently 30 PSB members, most of them transfers from SSRS, with an open invitation to any other Suffolk breeders that want to join.

Membership is no walk in the park as the group has a strong commitment to performance recording and recording of many of the newer management traits is mandatory. This is something they will not compromise on, seeing it as the strongest tool they have for producing top rams.

“We’re in the game of promoting performance recording as an essential part of producing rams fit for purpose,” said Mr Baber.

Charles Harding, current president of the Suffolk Sheep Society and keen member of PSB, said SSRS had produced high genetic merit rams with superior growth rates and carcase traits and PSB would continue that work.

While terminal sire traits continue to be important, members were now also committed to recording management traits linked to improving efficiency and driving down labour costs, he said.

All members record health and maternal traits (see information panel) and are also strongly encouraged to record dagginess and faecal egg counts (FEC).

All recording information is evaluated by Signet to create EBVs that are independently validated and because all members record the same traits in the same way, they can promote their EBVs as ‘comparable and accurate’.

Although Mr Baber and Mr Harding sell their rams through different systems, both agreed the demand for EBVs from buyers had increased by an incredible amount over recent years.

All of Mr Baber’s and half of Mr Harding’s rams are sold privately off the farm, and they said it was now very rare for those clients not to want EBV information. At sales, where the other half of Mr Harding’s rams go, there was also a growing interest.

Both breeders agreed work done by organisations like Eblex’s Sheep Better Returns Programme has driven people’s understanding of EBVs, and that there was a better appreciation of different traits and prioritising specific EBVs.

“The overall index is a general guide,” said Mr Harding. “But when people come to the farm they want to look at EBVs for individual traits.”

EBV interest

Despite a growing understanding, Mr Baber said he still thought EBVs could be confusing. To aid buyers that come to his farm he prints out information from his database on each ram for sale, highlighting the EBVs he thinks that client will be looking for. He also uses a colour-coding system of gold, silver and bronze to show how high rams rank for each EBV.

Like other PSB members selling through the auction ring, Mr Harding also uses the gold, silver and bronze colour-code when placing information cards on rams’ pens at sales.

Mr Harding runs the Bentley flock of 140 pedigree ewes at Lodge Farm, Atterton, Nuneaton. The mainstay of his business is selling pedigree rams, and these number 100 each year.

Around three quarters of the flock lambs in January and the rest in March with a lot of the performance recording done at this time. All data is manually recorded before it is fed into the Signet database.

When the figures are returned to Mr Harding he not only uses them when selling rams but also uses the EBVs to make breeding decisions for his own flock.

This has enabled far greater improvement to be made in specific traits and, although Mr Harding said performance traits would remain the core of the breeding programme, management traits were now also under selection.

For example, recording FEC and selecting for low FEC EBVs had led to far greater worm resistance within his flock.

“It is without doubt that the use of EBVs will speed up genetic improvement,” he said.

He and Mr Baber have been part of the discussion within PSB about feeding rams high levels of concentrates before sale. The group believe this unnecessary and rams should be grown and selected for their ability to perform.

“We believe in selling genetics not cosmetics,” said Mr Baber.

Although PSB does not dictate to members how much concentrates they can feed, there is a real commitment within the group to produce a ‘more naturally reared animal’, one that will thrive on grass when taken home by commercial buyers.

“Due to the progress which PSB breeders have made over the years, the majority of PSB rams are in the top 25 per cent of the breed and have to be seen as an investment,” said Mr Baber.

“The rams which we are producing are expected to produce an extra £2,000 of profit during their lifetime.

“PSB is in the ram production business for the long term. We aim to produce high performance, fit for purpose rams for profitable commercial sheep producers.”

Breeding aims

All members of the Premier Suffolk Breeders have made a commitment to record and select for management traits in three areas:
1. Health – faecal egg counts and dagginess.
2. Maternal – ease of lambing, number of lambs born and prolificacy.
3. Lamb vitality – ease of birth, lamb vigour and speed to suck.

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