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Sandyknowe Suffolk trade proves strong demand for commercially reared, high performance rams with 100% clearance, good average price and sale topping at 5,000gns.

Established in 1957, the Sandyknowe Suffolk flock consists of over 150 ewes bred in a five family rotation and is owned by Messrs. Malcolm M. Stewart of Roxburghshire, Scotland.

The flock is bred specifically to provide high performance rams for commercial prime lamb production and hence is lambed outdoors in April and managed under commercial conditions with strong emphasis placed on lamb vigour. Rams are especially suited to grass-based systems with little concentrate fed until after scanning and selection.

The Sandyknowe flock has been performance recorded for five decades with breeding stock selected on the basis of structural correctness, conformation and terminal sire index.

In 2013, the flock began to host its annual off-farm ram sale. Thursday 12th September 2019 saw the families 6th annual sale with a flying trade.

47 commercially reared rams were offered for sale with 96% of the offering being in the top 5% terminal index or above.

47 shearling rams sold averaging 881gns.

Top price of the evening went to Y13:18:15699 at 5,000gns to the Ingram family at Logie Durno. The ram was used within the Sandyknowe flock as a ram lamb and has phenomenal growth characteristics. Semen has been provided to the RamCompare project for use in production of the 2020 lamb crop.

Two high index rams topped at 3,800gns. Y13:18:15692 again with outstanding growth and used by the flock as a lamb. The Harding family from Bentley Suffolks purchased Y13:18:15690, a half-brother to Y13:18:15692 with heavy muscling characteristics by proven stock sire Sandyknowe Leader 17 to 1.

“So often in life we take on systems to help improve something we do and in most cases it’s very hard to gauge just how much of a difference that has made to the end result…. In relation to what we are doing with our Suffolk’s, we can hand on heart say without question that both Signet recording and CT Scanning has played a central role in the success we had in selling at Kelso last week” says Scott Brown from Capielaw Suffolks after his ram lamb sales at Kelso last week.

Scott has been Signet performance recording for five years and places great emphasis on the results he receives from CT scanning his best ram lambs every year. He uses both his Signet figures and CT results to market his breeding stock to commercially minded customers. His hard work has been rewarded at the 2019 Kelso ram sales.

JTO:1900102 was CT scanned in May 2019 as a lamb and gave Scott his biggest gigot score and spine length of his Kelso pen.  The lamb sold at Kelso for the flocks top price of £2,100

JTO:1900121, by homebred sire Capielaw Debonair was also CT scanned with highest CT predicted killing out percentage and eye muscle area alongside having a top 10% terminal sire index selling for £1,100

‘Performance recording is the only accurate way to breed for better performance’

Peregrine Aubrey is in his tenth year of recording. He started because he was retaining replacement ewes and had no real data on which to select them. He also couldn’t tell how good the rams he was buying in were. “It has been a really positive experience. I have gone from near the bottom of the Lleyn ranking to the very top in nine years.”

“However the demand for improved genetics is far lower than I had hoped for and it is both me and the sheep farming community who are losing out. Breeding and buying improved sheep genetics is mutually beneficial especially as rams with EBVs don’t have to cost that much extra.” “Ask yourself this, would a dairy farmer use semen to breed for replacement heifers without EBVs or indeed GEBVs.”

Peregrine has not found the cost or time spent recording too onerous. But says if you want to get all available EBVs it can become more specialised e.g. weighing at birth for lamb survival and Individual FEC and saliva tests for worm resistance EBVs.

In terms of improvements, there has been a reduction in the days to slaughter for lambs meaning reduced fattening costs and allowing him to divert grass to breeding ewes, cutting their overwintering costs.  Performance recording is the only accurate way to breed for better performance. Without it you can’t claim you are breeding for better genetics or perhaps even better sheep.

Top tips for breeding genetically better sheep:-

  • Don’t let any negative traits creep in when looking for better measurable performance.
  • Retain lots of replacement females to allow for rigorous culling on all fronts. I would suggest maximum progress would mean retaining 30 to 40% of you adult flock as ewe lambs.
  • Use top figured tups and plenty of them with diverse genetics to keep diversity in the flock making it easier to avoid inbreeding.

As one of the longest running Signet-recorded Southdown flocks, Stephen Humphrey is truly convinced of the merits of using EBVS to select the best possible animals

“It’s the measuring stick of your genetic improvement in your flock. There’s no point having a good looking ewe if it won’t perform,” he says. “You find out stuff about your flock that you can’t tell by eye – especially the growth and the fat cover now.

The 165 ewe East Dean Southdown flock originates from the Eartham Flock that Stephen’s father purchased in the early seventies. More recently, Stephen and brother Paul have been marrying flock EBVs with visual assessments to select their ideal South Down breeding animal.

Stephen explains: “Over the last 10 years, we’ve selected for growth, leanness and length – more by eye. Plus the eye muscle – that’s a bit secondary but we don’t want a small eye muscle. An ideal ram is one that produces a fast growing lamb that finishes easily off grass or you can take it to the hogget stage and produce a quality hogget at up to 18-21kg.”

Over the last decade, The East Dean flock has made marked gains in muscle depth, with the muscle depth EBV improving from around 0.1 to about 1.4mm. This compares favourably to the breed average of about 1.18mm. This indicates improved genetics for muscling in the eye muscle across the loin. Growth rates to scanning have also improved. The flock has an overall genetic index of 198, versus a breed average of 191.

Stephen retains about 2-3 of his best rams from the top 5 per cent. He will also buy in some tups, usually from Signet-recorded flocks.

His own Southdown rams are also used on the 150-ewe flock of commercial Suffolk cross Mules to produce hoggets which are sold liveweight.

Pedigree Southdown ewe lamb replacements are selected first by eye and then by EBVs – although an animal must have good figures in order to be retained. Stephen adds: “I try and keep a bit more true to type and you want milkiness. That links back to the rams. You want a ram that will throw good mothering traits.”

Around 20-25 tups and 70-80 females will be sold a year, with most heading to commercial producers. Some will be sold at the Southdown national sale at Worcester and also at Builth Wells. The rest go off farm.

“The EBVs get you a good name as they know they’re getting good sheep from you,” adds Stephen.

The main Southdown flock lambs in February-March with a handful lambing in January to produce show sheep. The Humphreys have had good success on the show circuit, including reserve female champion at the recent Devon Show. They have also won the Royal Welsh Southdown Champion over the years.

On winning The Decade of Progress flock Award, Stephen says: “I’m very proud to win the award. It reflects all of the hard work we’ve done. We’ve been in it for 20-30 years. It’s good to be recognised for the achievement in the flock.”