Steeple Bumpstead: Essex Lleyn sheep flock wins top award for genetic progress

AN Essex farming couple have scooped a prestigious award for most improved sheep flock.

Humphrey and Ellie Mills, who farm near Steeple Bumpstead, are Lleyn sheep flock winner of the beef and sheep levy payers’ organistion EBLEX Improved Flock Awards for 2012.

The award, organised through the Sheep Better Returns Programme, is presented to the English performance recorded flock that has shown the most impressive improvement in genetic merit over a 12-month period, within the breed.

The couple bought their 376 acre farm in 2006. Situated on heavy Essex clay, it includes 70 acres of grassland – a mix of permanent pasture and leys grown in rotation with combinable crops, as well as additional rented grass keep. The sheep enterprise helps control blackgrass in the arable crops.

The flock consists of 50 purebred Lleyn ewes and 20 purebred Texel ewes, with a further 120 lower performing pedigree Lleyn ewes which are put to Texel ram lambs.

The Texel flock was established in 1995, with the Lleyns arriving in 2003 with the purchase of 25 MV and EAE accredited pedigree ewe lambs. More sheep were bought from the same flock when it was sold, and numbers have increased steadily by keeping home-bred replacements.

Thirty beef calves are bought each year, bucket reared and kept on grass for two summers before being sold on for finishing. The livestock runs on an extensive system. The combination of cattle and sheep aids grassland management and is good for worm control. The sheep stay out all year and receive very little supplementary feed or conserved forage.

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“We chose this breed because of the prolificacy, easy lambing and good mothering ability of the females,” said Humphrey. “It is ideal for a self-replacing closed flock like ours. They also produce a good carcase without being crossed with another breed.”

The flock lambs from mid March. Ewes bearing twins lamb outdoors away from the buildings, while those with singles and triplets lamb nearer the lambing shed for easier fostering and shepherding.

The lambs stay with their mothers on clover-rich pastures until weaning in July. The commercial flock is taken to cattle pasture after shearing for weaning and finishing before being sold through Colchester market or as breeding stock off the farm.

Keeping the lambs with the ewes stops them putting on too much fat prior to tupping to reduce the number of triplets. Humphrey aims for a lambing percentage of 200.

Rams are turned out on October 21 in single sire mating groups. It is often difficult to find rams that are of a higher index than the ewes, so home-bred rams are mainly used, with one or two brought in on hire for a season.

The Mills have performance recorded the Lleyns since 2005. As they were already involved and committed to collecting figures on their pedigree Texel flock, they already knew the benefits of using Estimated Breeding Values (EBVs).

Home-bred replacements are selected on their EBVs for maternal traits, growth and muscle depth. Checks are also made that they are structurally sound with good feet, udders and mouths.

An ear notch system implemented at lambing time indicates if a pedigree Lleyn is to be culled, or demoted to the commercial flock. A final selection of replacements or culls is made based on the Signet data report. Ewe lambs are selected in the same way.

All purebred Lleyn ewes are recorded – those scoring below index 190 are mated to home-bred high index Texel rams, with about 50 bred pure.

“Over the years I have realised that the best sheep don’t need mollycoddling, or buckets of cake three times a day,” said Humphrey.

“While selecting for important maternal and carcase traits I have also bred for the ability to survive and thrive on grass.

“For me it is much more important to find out what a sheep can do production-wise than how it looks. I am much more interested in its potential to produce lamb chops cost effectively than win silverware.”

The top 10% of the rams are shared with the Lleyn Sire Reference Scheme. Rams are sold to pedigree breeders; pure Lleyn breeders (not registered or recorded), or for crossing with other breeds.

Most of the stock is sold off the farm. The recorded flock directory published each year by EBLEX has proved a useful source of new customers.

“These rams can make a crucial contribution to any flock, and will enable producers to breed their own high quality female replacements. They should never need to buy in ewes again,” says Mr Mills.

Richard Clay of Gaynes Park Farm, Essex, said he has been very happy with Lleyn rams he has purchased from Mr Mills. With a pedigree Texel flock of his own, he wanted some high index Lleyns to mate with commercial Texels to produce Lleyn Texel cross ewe lambs. The aim was to keep some as replacements and to achieve a higher lambing percentage.

“The cross-bred ewes are now starting to produce lambs themselves and the results are already very promising indeed,” said Mr Clay.

EBLEX sheep breeding specialist Samuel Boon said: “Humphrey and Ellie have spent time and effort to produce top class animals. Their high index home-bred rams have propelled them to the top of the breed for progress this year. I congratulate them wholeheartedly on this achievement.”