Welsh Hill breeding index improves stock selection

Farmers who are part of a Welsh hill genetics scheme have benefited from using a Welsh hill breeding index to select rams and replacement ewes.

With over 50 hill flocks involved, the Hill Ram Scheme is investing in Welsh upland farming by applying the latest breeding technology and performance recording with the aim of strengthening the Welsh sheep sector through long-term genetic improvement.

The Hill Ram Scheme is led by Hybu Cig Cymru – Meat Promotion Wales (HCC) and is one strand of the Red Meat Development Programme – a 5-year Welsh Government and European Union-funded initiative. 

One farmer who has been performance recording his Welsh flock for the last twenty years is Garry Williams who farms within the Brecon Beacons National Park at Blaencennen in Gwynfe.

Mr Williams farms around 700 ewes, made up of improved Welsh mountain, home produced crossbreds and a breeding flock of composite ewes on his hill farm. The Welsh mountain sheep graze on the Black Mountain common.

Through careful ram selection and identifying and keeping the best performing ewes, Mr Williams has seen an increase of 2.5kg average in carcase weights and notes that three quarters of the Welsh ram lambs are 43kg liveweight or over when sold.

When discussing the benefits, Mr Williams said, “I need a good efficient ewe to fit into the system here. Performance recording is a great tool that allows me to look at the science behind the productivity. 

“I’m constantly striving to increase the maternal ability and the end product. I’ve seen an increase in performance and productivity.”

Mr Williams added, “When selecting ewe lamb replacements, I immediately remove the lambs with index in the bottom third for the flock. The remaining lambs are then inspected for type, structure and suitability to breed from. 

“When it comes to ewes going to the ram, only the top 50% index of ewes are bred pure, the rest are put to a composite ram to breed ewe lambs suitable for breeding and prime lambs, these are marketed at 45kg liveweight. 

“When purchasing rams for the farm, I look at the performance records and select rams with a positive fat, positive muscle and maternal ability as priority Estimated Breeding Values in their index.” 

Sean Jeffreys, HCC Programme Officer who works on the Hill Ram Scheme explained, “Mr Williams was one of the original group who supplied genetics to the Hill Ram Scheme flocks and has shared his knowledge and experience with those who have recently started performance recording through the Scheme.

“The improvements seen through selecting high indexed sheep are clear at Blaencennen and while genetic improvement is a long-term process we would expect that other farms in the Scheme would start to see positive outcomes in the coming years. 

“The difference in lamb weights and fewer days to slaughter has proved that using performance recorded stock and using a breeding index to help make management and purchasing decisions have brought many benefits to the sheep system at Blaencennen. While these benefits support farm productivity they also have positive connotations with regards to lowering emissions and increasing sustainability.”

Further advice and information on ewe replacement can be found in a factsheet developed by the Hill Ram Scheme.

HCC’s Hill Ram Scheme is one of three 5-year projects in the Red Meat Development Programme which is funded by the Welsh Government Rural Communities – Rural Development Programme 2014-2020, which is funded by the European Agricultural Fund for Rural Development and the Welsh Government.


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About The Author

John Swire - Editor of Agronomist and Arable Farmer as well as responsibility for the Agronomist and Arable Farmer and Farm Business websites. After 17 years milking cows on the family farm John started writing about agriculture in 1998 and has since written for a variety of publications and has developed a wide circle of contacts within the industry. When not working John is a season ticket holder at Stoke City and also of late has become a fitness freak, listing cycling, swimming and walking as his exercises of choice.