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Livestock | 11 April, 2008
The Hulme family has long been associated with pedigree Suffolks, having years of success at shows and sales with its Crosemanor flock. But a switch in focus means that is no longer the priority – in fact, having imported genetics from New Zealand, they could not be moving further away from their traditional bloodlines. JOANNE PUGH found out more.
Having spent decades building a reputation for producing and selling pedigree Suffolks, it may come as a shock to many that the Hulme family has completely changed its breeding goals.
Gone are the days of producing the type of Suffolks that brought them so much success in showring over the years – instead the focus is working with genetics that will ‘do a job for the commercial producer’.
With the number of commercial farmers buying Crosemanor stock dropping significantly from the late 1990s, that is something the family feels it had been failing to do before.
Things started out well in 1952 when the late Stanley Hulme established the Crosemanor flock in the village of Cockshutt, Ellesmere, Shropshire, and gained momentum when son Robyn joined the business in 1977.
Successes at national shows and Suffolk Sheep Society events mounted up with home-bred Crosemanor Commandeur (sold in 1997 for 26,000gns) and part-owned Pankymoor Prelude having a significant impact on Suffolk breeding throughout the UK.
But by 2000, Robyn had begun to worry about the ‘tail off’ in commercial customers and if the business could survive in the future with two sons James (now 25) and Nick (18) both keen to come on board.
Spending time with a New Zealand Suffolk breeder visiting the UK proved to be the turning point and, following a three-week trip to the Southern Hemisphere, Robyn decided to make a departure from pure UK genetics and start blending them with NZ Suffolks instead, importing NZ embryos and semen from 2006.
This may appear to be in conflict with Robyn’s long association with the Suffolk Sheep Society, having served as chairman and just finishing a term as commercial director.
But, he argued, he and his sons were putting into practice what the society had long been urging its members to do – produce stock to meet the needs of commercial farmers.
They want to emulate a New Zealand-style breeding company, producing rams with the sole aim of improving the profitability of the commercial guys who buy them, be it through increased meat yield and/or reduced inputs and labour.
While functional traits such as good feet and legs would still be high up the agenda, cosmetic traits would no longer be important, as nothing would be sold through a showring but privately off the farm with customers having access to detailed performance data.
“Call it what you want – a road to Damascus revelation or poacher turned game keeper – but I believe I’ve seen the light,” said Robyn.
“It’s a no-brainer and I’m not sure why I didn’t see it sooner. It’s a sustainable future and that’s why everything is now in the names of James and Nick and not me.”
Reflecting on where he had come from, Robyn said he was proud of what the Suffolk Sheep Society had achieved in recent years, embracing ‘big, big’ changes and encouraging the use of new tools like performance recording and gene markers.
He said his involvement with both the society and BASCO had been invaluable in termsof being able to meet the knowledgeable people that such organisations brought together.
The Hulme family still have a massive affection for ‘proper’ Suffolks, with James and Nick running a small pure-bred flock as a ‘hobby’ with the hope of one day achieving what neither their father or grandfather did – winning the Suffolk Sheep Society show and sale at Edinburgh.
“We still like proper Suffolks and, if I’m honest, we still like winning shows,” said Robyn, describing it as an ‘enormous pleasure’ and ‘real buzz’.
But those show Suffolks – bred for width, bone and blocky confirmation – could not be more different from the New Zealand Suffolks the Hulme family is now so taken with.
Robyn described them as ‘functional’ and ‘wedge shaped’ with CT scanning showing lots of meat in the back-end, despite initial visual appraisals perhaps suggesting otherwise.
This wedge also meant a wide pelvis, ideal for lambing ease, aided by finer boning in the head, shoulders and legs.
He said they had been drawn to them because the New Zealand sheep’s development, in contrast to that of their UK ancestors, had been driven by a desire to reduce costs. This was immediately applicable to the UK, where too many sheep farmers were currently making a loss, he said.
The New Zealand breeders had, and were continuing to concentrate on, labour-intensive traits, such as worm resistance/resilience and lameness/footrot.
The Hulme family planned to continue this within their developing flock, performance recording ‘everything’ from lambing ease and suckling speed to dirty back ends and cold tolerance.
They were also great believers in gene markers, using all the tests available to them.
There were plans to start running a commercial flock – probably based on Lleyns – in the autumn to further test their Suffolk rams in ‘real life’ situations.
With so much enthusiasm, the real problem for the family is lack of numbers – but this is set to change with additional UK-bred pedigree Suffolks bought in last year, 200-head lambed in the last three months and plans are in place to increase to 500 breeding ewes by 2011.
The 700-acre mixed farm would then see the area of grassland increase from its current 150 acres. But the whole point of the NZ Suffolks was that no more staff would be needed other than the three already working full-time on the farm – James, one shepherd and one general farmworker – plus Nick, once he has finished college.
In early 2007, 30 NZ Suffolk ET lambs were born at Pikesend Farm, although to everyone’s disappointment only 10 were female. Imported semen was also used on UK Suffolks to produce 10 half-and-half lambs.
This February, 60 ETs were born (30 female), reared by Welsh Mules recipients in the main. Aside from the ‘show team’, which lambed in January, everything else lambed in late March, having been inseminated with NZ-imported semen or served by home-bred NZ ram lambs.
Already 150 NZ embryos have been secured for implanting later in the year and there are plans to flush some
home-bred NZ ewe lambs. This, said the Hulmes, would not only increase numbers (especially as fresh embryos tended to hold better than frozen imports) but also form part of the future selection criteria and speed up genetic improvement.
All stock would continue to be ‘graded up’ using NZ genetics with no clear plan yet of whether to stop at three-quarter NZ or to keep going.
Robyn said such a decision was not top of their list of priorities, as when breeding for the commercial market it did not matter about cosmetic appearance or family histories – just hard performance data.
This was also his justification for using the ‘myomax’ gene marker. This identified a gene linked to higher meat yields – but it was not naturally found in Suffolks and so Texels, which did tend to carry the gene, had been used some years ago to introduce it into NZ Suffolk bloodlines.
Robyn said some breeders were against this idea of seven-eighth Suffolks being considered as pure-bred, but it did not bother him if it meant he could exploit genetics further to produce an even better product. Therefore, all the semen bought this year had two copies of the myomax gene.
“Rams are just a production tool – no different to fertiliser – and we should treat them as such, thinking of them purely as tools,” he said.
Looking forward, the Hulmes said they were looking forward to selling large numbers of home-bred NZ Suffolk rams.
The intention had been to sell them as shearlings but demand for working ram lambs had meant a change of plan. Tests on their ram lambs had proven them to be fully fertile by 19 weeks of age.
Robyn said they would be able to serve 150 ewes as shearlings and, he believed, would live for longer (working for up to five seasons), further reducing input costs for those who purchased them.
They would not feed creep to any of their rams, believing heavy concentrate use reduced fertility and led to a shorter working life.
On the subject of feeding concentrates to pedigree rams, Robyn said it was something that ‘ticked him off’ because commercial farmers criticised it but then always bought the biggest rams at sales.
Therefore, pedigree breeders inevitably fed concentrates in order to gain size and compete against each other.
That was why he was pleased by the thought that the family would never sell their NZ Suffolks through a sale ring or make them ‘compete in a beauty parade’.
Some of the 2007-born ET rams were sold last August with early reports from a selection of pedigree, commercial, outdoor and indoor-lambing enterprises looking very promising.
“There’s a lot of them out there and we’re getting good feedback,” said Robyn. “The whole job is really exciting from where I’m sitting and it’s going to be so much fun for us all.
“We passionately believe in what we’re doing – it’s good for our customers and good for the bank balance. I think that’s why I’m now concentrating more on the next 20 years than the previous 20.”
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Suffolk Sheep Society