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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
Youngstock – FG | 8 February, 2008
Teenager Tom Cox has surpassed all expectations for his young age. His tenacious dedication to his pedigree flock and unwavering commitment to the family farm is something to aspire to. Angela Calvert reports.
MANY pedigree livestock breeders strive for a lifetime to attain what teenager Tom Cox has achieved in just a few short years.
In 2006, Tom, then aged just 18 years, was named the winner of the Bristol Gold Cup, the Suffolk Sheep Society’s National Flock Competition, with his Tomcroft flock.
The young farmer beat off stiff opposition from all over the UK and Ireland to gain the national accolade and is also enjoying tremendous success in the show and sale ring.
Yet despite his impressive professional triumphs, Tom still remains unassuming.
“I did not expect to win and it came as a complete surprise, but we were absolutely delighted,” says Tom.
The Cox family farm at Marston in Staffordshire where the main business enterprise is in dairying. Determined to take an active role, Tom, at the age of 12, was keen to establish his own pedigree flock of sheep and acquired six in-lamb Suffolk ewes for Christmas 2000, from Robin Hulme’s Crosemanor flock.
For the first two breeding seasons Tom used AI on the ewes with the sire Burness Aqua, and expanded the flock by retaining ewe lambs.
The MLC Signet recording scheme is used and a strict selection policy to ensure the genetics of the flock are constantly improving.
However, Tom feels that a turning point for the flock came in 2003, with the purchase, jointly with Clive Norbury, of the ram Muiresk Adrenaline, whose influence on the flock has been enormous.
“Adrenaline’s daughters have now formed the basis for the flock and as well having good conformation, have a certain presence and style, which I think is partly responsible for winning the national flock competition and has given us success in the show ring,” he reflects.
In the past three show seasons, Tom has taken champion or reserve at every show entered, including Shropshire and West Midland, Newport and at Staffordshire County for three years running.
On the sales circuit, the sale of his first ram lamb, in 2005, broke the £1,000 barrier at the National Show and Sale of Suffolks at Shrewsbury Market.
Although ewe lambs have been retained to build up numbers, there have also been some purchases of ewes from several of the leading Suffolk flocks, to improve genetic traits. AI from high-class rams has also been used to introduce new bloodlines.
In 2006 Tom used a homebred ram lamb, Tomcroft Persuader, on a number of ewes. He is by Castlewellen Nutcracker out of a Muiresk Adrenaline ewe and has been used for his fast growth rate, high muscle score of 42.2mm and low fat score.
The resulting progeny have been outstanding and Tom believes they will lead the flock to even more success.
“We are extremely pleased with Persuader’s first crop. He obviously crosses well with the Adrenaline ewes, which is good for the future improvement of the flock,” he says.
Last year, his flock was the winner of the Midland and Eastern Area flock competition, with Persuader taking the award for best stock ram. A share in Persuader has now been sold to Ken Powell of the Beechcourt flock.
In spite of the difficulties encountered by all livestock farmers during last year’s sale season, Tom was delighted with his results and the high demand for his stock, with the highlight being the sale of a ram lamb for 4,000 guineas.
“In spite of increasing popularity of continental rams in recent years I am still finding a strong demand for Suffolks. I am selling to both pedigree and commercial breeders,” he explains.
“The aim is to produce high index lambs, with good conformation, good muscle depth and little fat.”
Lambing takes place in January and some AI is used to ensure a tight lambing period. Ewes are left outside as long as possible, before coming inside to lamb. They are given minimal hard feed and are turned out again, with lambs, in February.
Any ewes, which have a bad lambing, show poor mothering instinct or have any other problems, are culled to improve the ‘easy care’ management of the flock.
Ewe numbers have now reached about 60, which Tom feels is probably the optimum number to fit in with the rest of the farm’s activities, as any further increase would start to take grass away from the cows. So now efforts will concentrate on further maximising the flock’s potential.
The Cox family bought Manor Farm in 1971, when it was just a 138-acre holding, to expand and develop their then 30-head Steve Acre herd of pedigree Holstein Friesian dairy cattle.
The expansion has been rapid and the farm now extends to 700 acres. The dairy herd stands at 350 cows, which are producing 11,000 litres at 4 per cent fat and 3.35 per cent protein. The milk is sold to Muller at Market Drayton.
The herd has been the highest yielding herd in Staffordshire, 18 times since 1978, and has also won numerous inspection awards at county level.
About 80 per cent of the cows are put to Holstein bulls to breed replacement and additional heifers and the remainder put to a Limousin bull. All calves are reared on farm, with the beef ones being sold as stores, resulting in around 800 head of cattle on the farm at any one time.
Although evidently enthusiastic about his sheep, Tom is committed to the dairy herd and rises at 3.30am to milk them and whenever possible, likes to do the feeding of the cows himself.
The current parlour was installed in 1996 and was only intended for 170 cows. Plans are underway for a new 40-point internal rotary parlour, which will allow 150-200 cows to be milked per hour and will enable the herd to expand even further. It’s hoped the new parlour should be operational by the end of next year.
“I see a good future in dairy farming and would like to significantly increase cow numbers. The new parlour should allow us to do that and make management so much easier,” he says.
Tom says he did not ever consider a career other than farming and after completing a National Diploma in Agriculture at Robaston College now intends to focus on the family farm. Working full-time alongside him are his sister, Rachael and girlfrie
nd, Lucy Moss, who share his commitment to farming.
Tom’s father, Stephen has embraced the enthusiasm of his three young workers. He says, “Although times have been difficult for some, there have been some real opportunities in farming over the last ten years and it has certainly given us the opportunity to expand.
I think the way forward is family farms, where everyone works together with the aim of moving ahead.
“If it was just me, I may feel differently, but these three young people are all so keen, I want to support them and we are all very optimistic for the future.”
Unsurprisingly proud of Tom’s achievements, Stephen believes the reason for his son’s success lies in his ‘attention to detail and good eye for sheep’.
It’s almost easy to forget that despite his sale success, winning stock and increasingly active role on the farm, Tom is still only 19 years old.
When asked the secrets to his own success, Tom’s answer is typically more modest to that of his fathers.
‘I was very lucky that I started out with some good stock and have built on that and I enjoy what I do.”
FORWARD planning and a well executed, tried and tested ‘system’ are the key to easing management and maximising lamb sales on a 3,000 ewe Shropshire Farm.
Nick Davies is head shepherd at Brakes Farm, near Ludlow, and his enterprise is aiming for least 1.7 lambs sold per ewe – a goal significantly ahead of the average being achieved by the top third units in Eblex Business Pointers.
He sells his prime lambs through a retailer producer group – a marketing decision which has not seen him fall below £40 per head, even in this difficult season.
Key to the farm’s performance is ewe management pre- and post-lambing and the production of good-sized, vigorous lambs, which are matched to ewes’ individual milking potential by meticulous attention to fostering, where necessary.
And skimping on input costs is not necessarily the way to achieve either vigorous lambs or a milky ewe, says Mr Davies.
The top third performing flocks in Business Pointers have total variable and replacement costs a shade over £30 – not markedly different to the overall average or bottom third, and concentrates, feed and forage come out at £12.30.
At Brakes Farm, total variables come to £35.25, within which feed and forage account for £13.30. But it is fixed costs that really set the top and bottom thirds apart. With close attention to detail at lambing time, Mr Davies needs to take on around five to six casual staff. But with no unpaid family labour costs, Mr Davies’s total labour cost per ewe comes out at £15 – well below the £23 total labour costs of top third performing enterprises.
The flock is split into early and late lambers. This year, the first bunch comprised 900 ewes, which worked well. “It puts a lot of pressure on the staff, but the grass is there and the main lambing has been so much better, so we’ll go for 900 again next year,” he said.
The early bunch lambed in the first two weeks of March, while the rest of the flock began on April 1 – most of them expected to lamb within three weeks.
Around 75 per cent of the flock were put to Suffolk rams and 25 per cent to high index Texels. However, the percentage of ewes put to a Texel may increase over the next few years as Mr Davies feels these lambs are better suited to the farm.
The lambing ewes are kept in smaller bunches – bays within the lambing shed with a maximum of 80 ewes in each. Lamb size has benefited, but a new feed, with 10 per cent more protein availability than before, has also had an effect.
All the ewes are scanned and those in the second bunch carrying triplets are winter shorn and housed in January and fed 1.2kg of nuts a day.
An additional 160-170 ewes with a condition score below 3.5 are also winter shorn and, regardless of how many lambs they are carrying, are fed and housed from the beginning of January. For six weeks before lambing, ewes carrying twins get 1.0kg of nuts daily, outside.
All the housed ewes are given hay for the first 10 days and then a mix of hay and barley straw after that.
Brakes Farm ranges from 500ft to 1,000ft and, after scanning, singles carriers are put on the higher ground and are supplemented with up to 0.3kg of nuts a day for four weeks before lambing and are eventually moved downhill to lamb outside in a specially-designed yard.
The improvement in lambing, however, is also due to the better quality of ewes. All barren ewes are culled, but shearlings are given ‘a second chance’.
Ewes are also culled for bad feet, low udders, big teats, only milking on one side, mastitis and if they prolapse or fail to show a maternal instinct.
No home-bred lambs are kept as replacements – all are reared for meat except 600 Suffolk cross ewe lambs sold for breeding. Replacements are brought from the same two farms every year to avoid compromising disease status.
The net result of keeping a tight control over management at Brakes Farm is a gross margin per ewe of £29.75, which is just above the average.
However, that margin looks set to improve further if Mr Davies achieves his target of 1.7 lambs per ewe.