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Breeding to aid the commercial producer.

A Suffolk breeder for 30 years, Richard Garner firmly believes in performance recording. Angela Calvert met him.

Using proven genetics can deliver financial benefits to commercial sheep farmers, according to Richard Garner. The purpose of his Ortum Flock of pedigree Suffolks, established in 1978 when 10 females were brought to the family farm at Haltham, Horncastle, Lincolnshire, has always been to breed rams for commercial producers. “We are constantly striving to produce rams for commercial farmers who produce easy are lambs which finish quickly, without the need for a lot of hard feed,” he says. Since the 1980s, Mr Garner has been a fan of ultrasonic scanning as a part of performance recording and in 1994 joined the Suffolk Sire Reference Scheme (now Premier Suffolk Breeders) in order to make even more use of figures. In that first year, the Ortum Flock was ranked fourth out of 28 members. In 1996 Mr Garner was awarded a Nuffield Scholarship to research recording schemes in Australia and New Zealand. He says this ‘fantastic opportunity’ opened his eyes to new ideas and strengthened his conviction that figures worked. Subsequently, rams are rarely bought in and instead AI from four or five rams from the top one cent of the breed is used, alongside one or two home bred rams. At one point, the Ortum Flock reached 200 ewes with 100 rams sold a year, but restructuring of the family business saw ewe numbers reduce to 80-90, with the ones retained selected on performance figures. Now about 40 rams are sold a year. There is also a spring calving herd of Lincoln Red Cattle on the farm and about 300 acres of arable land growing sugar beet, oilseed rape and cereals, mainly malting barley and milling wheat.

“We have always had stock and you have to like stock to do it,” says Mr Garner. “My interest in the Suffolks has been very rewarding and recording is not a chore – I get a great deal of pleasure from it. “But we have to be realistic and look at our costings. Recording is costing us £800-£1,000 a year and we have to be able to recover that from sales. It would be easy to reduce stock numbers and concentrate on the arable side. “I am disappointed some commercial farmers are not prepared to pay enough premium for a ram with proven genetics and do not seem to realise the investment would be easily paid back by producing better quality lambs. Many people just do not believe in fugures.”
Lambing is in January and Feburary in a polytunnel and sheep are usually turned out on to new leys in mid march, depending on weather conditions. Lambs are weighed at birth and rated for vigour and alertness at birth. Weights are taken at 10-12 weeks and 20 weeks, when they are also ultrasonically scanned.

Greater Accuracy
For the last four years, 10-12 rams have been sent away for CT (whole body) scanning to work out percentage of bone, fat and fleshing, to give greater accuracy for selection. Mr Garner also carefully selects ewe lambs to retain for breeding by looking at the ultrasonic scans himself, taking out any narrow eye muscle. The attention to detail has paid off and the year 12 out of 24 rams on the first page of the National Suffolk Breeding Evaluation were bred by Mr Garner. Ortum Supersire 06 was the top recorded ram of 2006 and was the sire of the top recorded ram lamb of 2007, which sold for 5,200 guineas at Shrewsbury. Lambs are offered some creep, but Mr Garner says they are generally not fed a great deal of hard feed. A third of ram lambs are usually sold at the early pedigree sales, a third at the later sales and the remainder sold as shearlings. Lambs not kept for breeding are sold at 20-22kg dead weight at about 10 weeks. “In recent years, Suffolk lambs have struggled to compete with the Charollais and Texel in the live auctions, as there is a perception the continenetals produce a better carcase,” he says. “What farmers do need to be aware of is that Suffolk lambs can get to market two weeks earlier which, for example this year was worth £7.50 per week and is some thing which cannot be ignored. “Something else I think has made the Suffolk less popular with commercial breeders in recent years is the fact sheep which are winning in the showring have become much heavier boned and have bigger heads.

All for Show
“Photographs from years ago show that traditionally we had a much lighted-boned sheep, more on the lines of the New Zealand Suffolk. “Sheep which win in the show ring should be those which are suitable to use effectively in commercial flocks, and I think we need to get back to that. “In our own flock, by chasing index figures, we have lost some of the finer show points, producing a finer-boned, easier care animal. “I believe they lamb easier, due to a finer head and front legs. The lambs and ewes are less fatigued and are able to get up and suckle quicker, reducing labour input. “All this has been done while improving carcase quality with the best of British genetics.”

Farmers Guardian, November 14th 2008

Response to the article: 'Breeding to aid the commercial producer'.

Lambs Bred with 'head of a bullock'.

May I congratulate Mr Garner on his recent article on Suffolk Sheep, and FG for publishing it.

Mr Garner points out a lot of issues that should have been raised before and not confined to ‘mutterings’ from the ‘Old Guard’. We remember when the Suffolk sire was the king of prime lamb production – and also good to look at. Now it has, in many cases, the head of a bullock and legs of a mini Shire horse, and a much poorer back end.

Many years ago, I was asked, on a number of occasions, to judge the group of three at the East Anglian show. I remember well the super animals that were brought out by the flock masters and their shephards of the time. As time went by, we saw the champion stock of the East Anglian shows, taken to the Royal Show and, standing beside the huge animals from over the border (where did the wool on the legs come from?) they did not appear to stand a chance. Having hung over the rails at the Royal for more than 50 years, I have seen two breeds improved out of all recognition and two breeds go the other way.

My son-in-law and daughter built up a commercial flock of ewes needing eight rams (all Suffolks) and they were happy. Around 10 years ago, they got fed up of struggling to deliver big headed and long-legged lambs. Now they are using 12 rams, only one of which is a Suffolk. Please do not blame the Suffolk ram. Blame the breeders.

Hugh T. Clark

Newmarket, Suffolk

Farmers Guardian, Janurary 9th 2009