Using technology and recording to mould a record-breaking flock
Livestock | 11 April, 2008
Using every tool at his disposal – from AI and embryo transfer to sire referencing and CT scanning – and never underestimating the need for good stockmanship, Neil Oughton has made massive strides with his pedigree Charollais flock. Ann Hardy went to meet him.
Neil Oughton has been using every technology and tool at his disposal alongside traditional farming skills to produce a livestock enterprise with a bright and certain future.
While the linchpin of his business may be keeping and utilising records, it is Mr Oughton’s unerring eye for stock that has moulded the Lowerye flock of Charollais sheep at Lower Rye Farm into the record-breaking unit it is today.
The flock has 210 pedigree ewes, which are part of a 750 acre enterprise at Moreton in Marsh, Gloucestershire. There is also 300-head of Holstein cattle and around 300 acres of arable land. It is a family-run unit – Mr Oughton’s parents are still involved and brother Keith runs the arable enterprise.
The pedigree flock was established in 1990, taking over from a commercial flock of 800 ewes.
“We tried several other breeds, including Rouge de l’Ouest, Blue du Maine and Texel, but we always came back to the Charollais for its easy lambing and its superior carcase – I don’t think there’s a better lowland terminal sire,” said Mr Oughton.
The flock began Signet recording in 1993, joining the Charollais sire reference scheme some three years later to allow genetic comparisons to be made between Lowerye and other participating flocks.
“We’re basically a group of like-minded breeders, all coming together in pursuit of the same aims,” said Mr Oughton, identifying faster growth, more muscle without excessive fat and the ability to finish off grass as primary breeding goals.
“In our first three years of recording, we didn’t make any progress at all,” he said, suggesting recording without reference to other sires in the breed was of limited value. “I bought high index rams, but their index was calculated within the flock and they all turned out to be below our flock average.”
But in the years after 1996, the flock made unparalleled strides. Not only has it expanded to become one of the largest Charollais flocks in the country, it is also now the highest genetic index flock, with more than 30 lambs scanned.
“Since we started recording and selecting on scanning results, we have increased average eye muscle depths by over 30 per cent,” said Mr Oughton.
“In the real world of finished lamb, that means a third more meat in your lamb chop.”
It also means considerably more profit. The average EBV for Lowerye rams born in 2007 was 349, placing the average lamb in the flock in the top 10 percent of the breed for eye muscle depth and the top 25 percent for growth rate.
“According to Signet calculations, that lamb’s progeny will be worth an extra £3.09 per head over those sired by a ram with an index of 100 – the average when the scheme was started,” said Mr Oughton.
“Over an average four-year life of a ram, siring around 60 lambs per year, that equates to extra income of £750.”
That was just for the average ram, he said, with the best rams promising greater rewards. That had led to sales, including to overseas buyers, with pedigree stock ram Lowerye Eric currently on his way to Ireland. Rams in the past have gone to Canada and Mexico.
Lowerye Eric was the top muscle ram in the breed in 2004 but has since been usurped from that position by his son Lowerye Great Guns – his EBV of 486 makes him the highest index Charollais ever recorded.
“We would not have reached this position without recording,” said Mr Oughton. “But it’s just a tool on top of handling and using your eyes. You cannot look at the figures and nothing else.”
He said stockmanship skills were very important and helped overcome difficulties producing an animal that would grow well and finish off forage without becoming too fat – or too lean.
“They have been built on forage, so they have to survive on forage,” he said.
Reaching that position invo-lved attention to detail, with first weight recordings taken for every lamb at eight weeks.
Lambing takes place in two tight blocks with AI and embryo transfer synchronised in July for a first lambing indoors in one week at the beginning of December.
“We’ll put a teaser ram in to mark any empty ewes and then sponge and AI again – including some ewe lambs – for another four days’ lambing at the beginning of February,” he said.
“This means the culls can go out at Easter at a good price so you can cull harder. Sending them live through Worcester Market gets us a fairer price, and is also a good advert for selling tups – it goes down well if people can’t understand why I am selling them as prime lamb.”
Ram lambs identified for selling as breeding stock are retained on farm on ad-lib creep to 21 weeks, when they are ultrasound scanned for backfat.
“Then they go out to grass,” he said. “They will take a check, but it’s better then than when they go to a new farm.”
After out-wintering on stubble turnips – on the farm’s most well-drained and gravelly fields – they go back on to grass in spring and are sold off grass from mid-July onwards at around £450 a head.
Around 10 of the very best of these ram lambs – as identified by ultrasound, eye and handling – will have even been CT scanned, involving a trip to SAC in Edinburgh, providing the most accurate indication of body composition available.
“CT scanning gives us a measure of the whole carcase lean meat and gigot muscularity,” said Mr Oughton, whose lambs are often the top scoring for both. Lowerye Great Guns is top of the breed to date with eye muscle depth of 44.5mm and eye muscle area of 42.88sq.cm.
Back on the farm, the ewe lambs retained will follow a similar regime to the rams, and will be densely stocked in summer to prevent over fatness.
“Keeping fat off in summer is hard work for all early lambing flocks,” said Mr Oughton, giving a summer stocking rate of around 25 lambs per acre and stressing the importance of lambing them young.
“Not many people will lamb ewe lambs, but they should represent your best genetics and they will only be asked to rear one lamb,” he said.
The overall aim of the business is to sell around 100 commercial shearling rams that will ‘produce superior prime lambs from cross-bred ewes that will finish quickly with minimal feed’. And with many sales based on reputation or repeat business, Mr Oughton is confident he is achieving that.
“When selecting their rams, a lot of customers will put their faith in me,” he said. “They know that I record and am well-placed in the scheme, but they don’t want to know actual figures, preferring to pick on eye.”
He cautiously acknowledges his customers have looked for stock in France – the home of the Charollais breed. But many return to England where, in 30 years of development, the breed has excelled for its size and functional correctness while retaining the fleshing qualities for which it was introduced.
“I do have a customer from Holland who started buying Charollais in France,” said Mr Oughton. “But now he buys everything in England.”