The management benefits of performance recording shine through at this time of year on the Perthshire farm run by Alex Brewster.
A decade after introducing performance recording to his flock of Blackface sheep, Mr Brewster is more convinced than ever it one of the best business decisions he’s made.
Mr Brewster and his parents Alistair and Morag farm around 9000 acres as tenants of Atholl Estate at Rotmell near Dunkeld along with a land mangagment contract on Riemore near Butterstone, and a further 300 acres rented locally. The enterprise runs to 1500 feet above sea level supporting 2000 Blackface ewes and 100 Aberdeen Angus cows along with 4000 organic free range hens.
Since introducing performance recording returns have improved and the figures speak for themselves with average lamb weights up by 2.5kg since recording started. However, it is at this time of year that the major benefits of the system are clearest.
Mothering ability is one of the key attributes Mr Brewster has been breeding into his flock through selecting tups with high maternal indexes and during lambing seasons like those of the past two years the benefits of ewes being strongly bonded with their lambs and having plenty of milk shine through.
“I used to spend two or three hours a day trying to get lambs to suck from mothers which weren’t willing to take them. Now I have ewes which want their lambs – in fact they often want more than their own which is a different sort of problem but one that is much easier to solve!” said Mr Brewster.
Lamb losses overall have fallen and the Brewsters very rarely have to intervene to assist ewes with lambing which also helps to ensure a strong bond is established between the ewe and her lambs from the outset.
Only on very rare occasions do ewes and lambs have to be brought inside, reducing the risk of disease and disrupting the bond. “We used to need 26 pens inside and now we only have six. Even with the bad weather this spring the pens inside were only fully needed one day and the flock coped well with the conditions.”
Another benefit to the Brewsters’ breeding programme has been a sharp reduction in lamb losses to foxes. “We have wooded areas around the fields and there are a lot of foxes which used to be a problem, especially at night. We’ve had a fox about all this lambing season but, where we used to lose 50-60 lambs to foxes, we’ve just lost two this year in the twin fields with the lambs lying tight in with their mothers overnight.”
It was time spent in New Zealand after finishing college that proved the initial inspiration for 34-year-old Mr Brewster to improve the genetics of the flock back home. He worked on a 120,000 acre sheep station running 40,000 sheep and one of his clearest memories was the emphasis put on breeding replacements using genetic information to improve flock performance. The introduction of a nucleus flock of 150 females to breed the majority of male replacements at Rotmell was based on a model seen in New Zealand.
Mr Brewster also decided to take part in the Scottish Sheep Strategy “Benefits of Better Breeding” project run by Quality Meat Scotland aimed at encouraging uptake of performance recording. This, he said, gave him a very clear understanding of his flock costings and the economic potential of recording.
“I’m not pushing hard for an extreme sheep but an efficient and productive animal which is a balance between breed type, physical structure and proven genetic potential. Bigger sheep just need more feed on harder ground and increasing my feed bill is not part of the plan.
“What I’m chasing is mothering ability. I’m looking for a sheep which will rear her lambs well with a good supply of milk as well as rearing lambs with muscle. The sheep don’t have to be bigger and heavier to do that although I have Blackface lambs which have loins as wide as Texels and kill out just as well.”
Mr Brewster is at a loss as to why more Scottish producers are not performance recording.
“There can, unfortunately, be a tendency to be too inward-looking and it’s really important that the youngsters coming into the industry get the chance to travel and get out and onto different farms to see what others are doing well.
“Perhaps for some it is simply a case of not wanting to break the mould and admit there could be a better way to do things. Too often farmers quote just two sets of figures – their scanning percentages and how much their top pen of lambs made. In reality it would be much more honest if they were looking at their losses from birth to sale.
“At tup sales time farmers could look back over the previous season honestly and ask themselves what could they be doing better rather than just doing what they’ve always done and buying a tup with good legs and head.”
For further information on performance recording visit www.scottishsheepstrategy.org.uk or the Quality Meat Scotland stand at Scotsheep (June 6) for an update on the project.