Gebruik genetics om lammeren eerder af te leveren

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?Keith and Robert Smirthwaite tried many breeds before deciding Suffolks, bought on the strength of EBVs, suited their farm best. Joanne Pugh met them.

Finishing lambs earlier each year has convinced Keith and Robert Smir-thwaite of the benefits of buying high genetic merit Suffolk rams with good EBVs for growth rates and gigots.

Lambing at Marwell Farm, Bedale, North Yorkshire, is from early February. The aim is to start selling finished lambs every fortnight from mid May. This year, 26 were sold on May 26 and 216 two weeks later.

“It was then we had a little bet between ourselves that 60 to 70 would go the next time – but another 236 were drawn, followed by 151 on July 6,” remembers Keith.

“We’ve never had so many go early,” says Robert, who is in charge of buying rams and has become a firm believer in using figures provided by breeders.

It was about five years ago when Robert first came across EBVs in literature produced by Eblex’s Sheep Better Returns Programme (BRP). The idea of having additional information about a ram and the quality of lambs it might throw appealed to him, especially as he and his father were concerned about how long it was then taking for lambs to finish.

“We like to finish lambs earlier in the summer, aiming to get everything away when the price is right, without getting ridiculous and lambing too early,” says Keith.

Robert says they were then using Bleu du Maine rams, having become disillusioned with the Charollais and Texel breeds. Their movement towards Suffolks was circumstantial, rather than planned, as they bought a Suffolk ram locally in 2001 because of foot-and-mouth movement restrictions.

Better source

Robert says foot problems meant that ram did not last for long but, as he sired some lambs that ‘got away earlier’ than the Bleus’ progeny, he decided to stick with the Suffolk breed but ‘buy from a better source’.

With their subsequent discovery of growth weight EBVs, Keith and Robert sought out a list of Suffolk breeders carrying out performance recording. That was how they found John and Fiona Key, who they have been buying rams from for four years, becoming increasing pleased with how fast their lambs finish.

?We’ve never had so many lambs go early.

Robert Smirthwaite

Listening to the Smirthwaites rave about EBVs changing the way they select rams is very satisfying for John and Fiona, who have been performance recording for many years, waiting impatiently for more buyers to acknowledge it.

“Performance recording is not a cheap job, but we believe in it,” says John. “Rams have still got to look right, but people who have the mindset will look at the figures too – not enough of them do that.”

John and Fiona run 70 breeding ewes at Garfield House Farm, Midhopestones, Sheffield, alongside 70 suckler cows.

From the day Midhope Suffolks was established in 1984, the weight of ram lambs has been regularly recorded as a way of gauging growth rates.

Real progress

An official performance recording programme was joined 20 years ago and John says ‘real progress was made’ through participating in the Suffolk Sire Reference Scheme, and then PSB.

A selection of ram lambs have long been scanned at the same time as recording their 20-week weight, but last year six lambs were also CT scanned through mobile facilities made available at Nottingham for the first time.

One of those lambs has been kept for home use, as he was shown to have an exceptional gigot score, and a half brother has been bought by Keith and Robert, also because of its gigot score. The breed average for gigots is an EBV of +3.78 and this lamb has +6.68, which puts him in the top 1 per cent for the breed.

He is also in the top 1 per cent for growth rate and top 25 per cent on index.

Although Robert usually buys all ram lambs, a couple of recent ram deaths meant he bought two shearlings this year in addition to the lamb. These are both in the top 10 per cent of the breed on index.

Robert is one of John’s earliest buyers, as he likes to make his selection soon after EBVs are available. He looked at the figures and asked to view 10 individuals, from which he chose the two shearlings and lambs according to which were the ‘most solid looking’.

John and Fiona sell 25 ram lambs and 25 shearlings each year, two thirds at sales and one third privately. Because they target the commercial market, they do a couple of society sales and sell a lot through general ram sales, mainly at Bakewell, but also some at Melton Mowbray and Skipton.

They tend not to sell breeding females, so many ewe lambs not wanted as replacements and poorer ram lambs go to the Easter market at Bakewell. The rest of the lambs are run on until the 20-week scan, when another thorough assessment is made and a few more sold.

John says he likes to run a young flock, so he keeps several ewe lamb replacements each year. He uses laparoscopic AI on all females, but keeps enough home-bred rams to cope in case of poor conception rates, as although up to 80 per cent of the flock has taken to AI in recent years, he does not like to tempt fate.

?Performance recording is not a cheap job but we believe in it

John Key

Those 80 per cent lamb in five days at the beginning of January, with the remainder a couple of weeks later. Fiona says they get it very cold, as the farm starts at 650 feet and rises to 1,000ft, so nothing goes outside until the grass starts growing in March.

Varied terrain

The 100-hectare (240-acre) farm is all LFA, with around half classified as severely disadvantaged. In comparison, none of Keith and Robert’s 160 hectares (400 acres) rises above 80-feet, although Keith says they have a big problem with the River Swale flooding the area where they keep the sheep, which is ‘peaty and little better than moorland’.

This area is separate to the main farm, where 90 milking cows averaging 10,000 litres are run. As well as keeping the heifer calves, all male calves are castrated, grown on grazed grass and some silage, and sold as two-year-old stores. Keith says there is quite a demand for these at the local market. In addition, 150 store cattle are bought in.

Each year, 8ha (20 acres) of spring barley is grown for wholecrop, and silage and hay are also made. Straw is used extensively for feeding and bedding, so 121ha (300 acres) is bought in the swath from a neighbour, as well as 130 tonnes of crimped wheat.

The 500 ewes, mainly Mules with a handful of unpopular Lleyns being slowly culled out, are moved to the main farm in October to clean up behind the dairy cows. The wholecrop barley is under-sown with stubble turnips and ewes are grazed on this before being housed on January 1 in a building used for rearing calves the rest of the year (calving is June until mid December).

Keith says he would rather buy in ‘a couple of extra tonnes of feed’ than ‘waste his money’ having the ewes scanned, so everything is fed the same on a compound from six weeks pre-lambing, hay and the better silage.

Lambing starts in early February with ewe and lambs initially kept in small groups, as Keith says any more than 70 ewes leads to mis-mothering, before being put together to ease management.

A formulated maize-based creep is made available as soon as lambs are turned out and weaning is usually in mid July.

Finished lambs

Finished lambs, drawn off fortnightly from mid May, are sold deadweight for export via Kepak, which prefers lambs under 42kg and penalises anything over-fat.

Robert says they have ‘eased off a bit’ on creep feeding because they usually buy in 300-350 stores to graze on silage aftermaths, but have not yet this year because of the high store price. Other factors include losing April’s milk cheque and investment money when Dairy Farmers of Britain went into liquidation in May.

Extra land has just been taken on, but the decision to buy another 50 ewes has been delayed for the same reasons.

Having milked cows for far longer than he has run sheep, Keith wonders if his experience selecting dairy bulls on figures alone is why he and Robert have taken to EBVs in rams so easily.

“We know a good bull on a cow can make a hell of a difference,” he says. “We’re using some bulls that you’ve never heard of, let alone seen, but are getting a right good cow that’s milking and doing the job.”


For information on EBVs and listings of pedigree breeders producing them, call Eblex on 0870 2418829 or visit

?The two farming enterprises?

Marwell Farm, Well, Bedale, North Yorkshire.

  • Recently taken on extra land to total 160 hectares (400 acres) in three separate blocks.
  • 500 mainly Mule ewes.
  • 90 dairy cows plus followers n Heifers kept as replacements and males castrated and sold as two-year-old stores.
  • 150 store cattle also bought and finished each year.

Garfield House Farm, Midhopestones, Stocksbridge, Sheffield, South Yorkshire.

  • 100 hectares (240 acres) with half classified as ‘severely disadvantaged’ and edging on the moor, an Environmentally Sensitive Area.
  • 70 Suffolk ewes.
  • 70 suckler cows.
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