A Perthshire farmer at the forefront of promoting the use of performance recording in sheep breeding has been recognised at the Royal Highland Winter Fair today (24 November 2010).
Alex Brewster from Rotmell, near Pitlochry was presented with the Johnston Carmichael Trophy by Neil Steven, Director Edinburgh Office, Johnston Carmichael and Rod McKenzie, Scottish Sheep Strategy Manager.
The trophy is awarded annually to the person or persons who have worked hard to raise the profile of livestock performance recording in Scotland.
“Alexander Brewster is one of the new generation of livestock farmers who is combining the best of traditional stockmanship with the advantages of scientific innovation,” said Kathy Peebles, Quality Meat Scotland Livestock Development Manager.
After spending time working on sheep farms in New Zealand Mr Brewster returned to the family farm he runs with parents Alistair and Morag determined to identify the ewes which were consistently causing a disproportionate amount of work and producing less than the majority of ewes in the flock.
After a couple of years doing his own recording he realised that, although it was helpful, it was not giving him the full picture and the vast quantities of data gathered were difficult to manage.
The next obvious stage was to record the flock with the Signet Sheepbreeder service which he did first for the 2004 lambing. Mr Brewster has clearly defined ideas on where he wants to be with his sheep enterprise and the judicious use of Estimated Breeding Values is helping him to achieve that. In 2006 he agreed to become one of the QMS Scottish Sheep Strategy Focus Farms. This involved running a four year trial assessing the financial impact to his business of using rams with known genetic potential.
The trial required the farms to record and compare the performance of progeny from High Index Rams, Low Index Rams and rams which were already on the farm with no information about their genetic potential. As Rotmell has been recording for some time there were no rams of unknown potential being used on the farm, so Mr Brewster’s “ farmer’s choice” was slightly different to some of the other farms involved in the trial.
By careful selection of ewes and tups for the “farmers choice” group, he achieved exactly what he wanted and his group consistently outperformed the other two groups in the trial. One interesting aspect of Alex's selection method is that he does not always choose sheep with the highest index to do his job. He knows which economic traits he wishes to concentrate on and selects sheep with the appropriate EBVs in those traits.
Because of the limited area of in-bye ground on this organic Perthshire hill farm too many twins are neither desirable nor practical so care is taken in selecting sheep which do not have a high Litter Size EBV. All the singles go to the hill for the summer so high Maternal Ability EBVs are crucial to ensure the ewes look after their lambs properly. Looking for the most efficient Blackface ewe possible, Alexander is now looking for a mature Size EBV which will give him ewes of the optimum size for his farm and farming methods.
“If the body weight of the ewes varies by as much as 20 kilos it is not possible to ensure that every ewe gets the correct amount of feed when being fed by a snacker,” said Mr Brewster. “If you feed an amount which gives an adequate maintenance ration to the big ones you are wasting feed on the smaller, lighter ewes and similarly if you feed to maintain the lighter ewes you are compromising the bigger ones.”
Mr Bewster has also been extremely proactive in the use of EID as a management tool and now has a system in place which means that single handed he can record his lambs at birth very simply and this has led to the introduction of a computerised shedding system which can select lambs by weight, by sire, and even by maternal grand sire without slowing down the operation in any way.
Scottish Sheep Strategy Manager, Rod McKenzie said: “Alex has such a clear idea of what he wants from his flock, and he understands how using EBVs and EID can help him achieve this. In spite of his enthusiasm for new technologies he is well aware of the value of keeping his sheep true to type and is prepared to spend both time and money on making sure his breeding choices fulfil all the criteria.
“Each year we hold several group meetings at Rotmell and Alexander's enthusiasm is so infectious that people always leave these meetings with an extremely positive attitude, and a sense of excitement about what they can do themselves to improve the returns and reduce the drudgery in their own flock. He is indeed a worthy winner of the Johnston Carmichael Trophy.”
For more information on the results of the trial at Rotmell and all the other Focus Farms visit the Scottish Sheep Strategy's website at www.scottishsheepstrategy.org.uk