Performance recording is accelerating genetic progress and output in a Welsh hill flock, with gains being made at the top end filtering through the entire flock of pedigree and commercial animals.
Edward Williams and his parents, Glyn and Lynne, have made big strides in increasing the genetic merit of their ‘Wenallt’ Welsh Mountain ewes since they started recording in 2010.
The pure-bred Welsh flock is now largely made up of ewes with an Estimated Breeding Value (EBV) in the top 25% for their breed on performance.
Improvements in milk production and early lamb growth rates have led to an increase in eight-week weight - an early indicator of lamb performance linked to both lamb survival and eventual lamb sale weights.
In the past seven years, there has been a 3.2kg increase in eight-week-old lamb weights, a 2.9mm increase in muscle depth at scanning and a 5.9kg increase in scanning weights.
While there are often year on year fluctuations, as with any hill farm, the rolling averages show a significant increase in the weight of both single and twin reared lambs.
These increases have seen eight-week weights for single-producing ewes rise to 22.8kg and total lamb weight produced for ewes rearing twins rise to 35.9kg/ewe.
Scan weight output per ewe taken at 20 weeks had increased by 2021 to 33.6kg for singles and 58.9kg for twins, from ewes with a 48kg mature weight.
Single ewes are weaning 70% of their mature bodyweight and twins 122% without creep and only minimal concentrates for twin bearing ewes.
The Williams’ farm Upper Wenall extends to 220-acres, rising from 750 feet to 1,160 feet above Talybont-on-Usk.
The flock maximises what it can from grass and 12 acres of swedes are grown annually as feed for pregnant ewes and single rearing ewes after lambing.
The family recognised performance recording as an important tool for genetic progress long before the Hill Ram Scheme was established in 2018.
“We started recording eight years before then, we could see it was the way forward," recalls Edward, who joined his parents in the business in 2005 after graduating from Harper Adams University.
Having EBVs, which indicate exactly where an animal ranks within the breed for specific traits of economic importance, play an important role in flock profitability, he says.
Having those figures allows the Williams family to make better breeding decisions, both within their own flock and when breeding rams for their commercial and pedigree customers.
EBVs show customers how rams compare with the rest of the breed, and which rams and females will be the most profitable on their farms.
It is a much more reliable way to assess the potential of sheep than visual appearance alone, although they still need to tick the boxes for type and structural correctness, says Edward.
“If we wanted to get to the very top, I didn’t want to have to pump an animal with feed, I decided that performance recording was a more genuine way to achieve that and commercially the most viable, and that probably is the case.
“Although our rams are not making thousands and thousands like some do in the traditional sales, we have a solid average and with the fixed pricing structure we’re not selling any rams below the cost of production."
He performance records 100 Welsh ewes, placing great importance on maternal ability and eight-week growth rate but taking special care not to increase mature ewe size.
He says: “When numbers come back from Signet the first thing I look at is the overall index, this is important as this is what we sell the rams on.
"And in terms of individual attributes, the maternal ability and milkiness of ewes is vital, so I look to eight-week weigh.
“It is all very well to have a lamb that can grow ‘X’ kilogrammes more than the one standing by its side but if the mother is not milky and maternal enough to allow it to reach its potential then it never will. In my opinion, if a lamb has a good start to life, it never looks back."
Early finishing is where the flock has seen gains, he says. In recent years he has been concentrating on muscle depth and positive fat depth.
“For me, the speed at which the lambs leave the farm is important and a good fat cover is key to that," he explains.
“It is no good to me having a 40kg lamb that is not fit to go to slaughter and needs to be fed on concentrates for a month to finish, I prefer a 36kg lamb that is fit and ready to go to free up grazing for stock left on farm."
Recording is lifting performance across the whole flock, with high index rams used on the crossbred ewes. Recording has taken out the bottom performers, says Edward.
“We have very few smaller poorer performing lambs these days because we no longer have those poor performing ewes that consistently produce poor lambs. The recording system flags those ewes very quickly."
There are 370 ewes in total, including 80 pedigree Black Welsh Mountains. Lambing gets underway from the end of February for four weeks, with only twin-bearing ewes receiving cake.
These are housed three weeks before lambing and fed 120g, rising to 250g, of 18% protein cake. Welsh ewes start lambing from 8 March.
“Lambs from the crossbreds are sold from the end of May at Talybont-on-Usk or Raglan livestock markets at 30-36kg liveweight before trade starts to drop," says Edward.
“We find from June you tend to gain weight and lose money due to simple supply and demand, so we find get them off the ground at lighter weights freeing up grazing for the pure breds works well for us."
Although the progeny from the Welsh ewes could be sold earlier, that doesn’t happen until mid-September as this allows the Williams family to scan all the lambs for muscle and backfat at the end of August to give a complete flock picture. The first draw is taken following this.
Data accuracy in the flock is very high because it has been recorded for 13 years. He says: “We can look back six generations, in some probably more because we bought rams that had been recording for six years before us. There is quite a depth of breeding and reliability in there now."
He is now also recording his pure flock of 40 Charmoise Hill ewes. That flock was established in 2020 with the foundation stock sourced from Warwickshire breeder David Eglin, who performance records 300 ewes.
With a mature size very similar to the Welsh, Edward saw benefits in introducing those genetics to his crossbreds.
He says: “The Charmoise is a very useful little sheep, not quite a hill sheep in the same regard as the Welsh Mountain but with a similar mature size which suits our farm and improved conformation."
The breed is recognised as one with good commercial value going forward, he says: “A lot of farmers use them on ewe lambs but there is big merit in using them on yearlings too, to give the yearling an easy lambing and rearing that doesn’t draw too hard on her.
“The lambs are a small, quick growing and have good conformation, and are vigorous and up and sucking quickly at birth."
Edward is now applying to join Tier 2 new Welsh Sheep Genetics Programme with the Charmoise Hill flock.
Eleven Welsh and five Charmoise yearling tups have been retained to sell as breeding stock this year.
All 11 Welsh rams sit in the top 10% of the breed and all are positive for their maternal ability and muscle and fat depth.
“These are the three traits we have always concentrated on, I am very pleased that all the replacements we have got to sell are positive on these very important traits," says Edward.
Some sales are directly from the farm but the majority are through the annual Prohill sale at Aberystwyth. The 10 tups sold last year averaged just over £950 a head.
Although the Williams family have been recording the Welsh Mountains for many years they have been very keen to preserve type and correctness.
It’s important to like the look of the females retained as flock replacements, says Edward.
“Short, broad teeth is something we’re very keen on as well because grazing ewes on roots every winter soon whittles out the ones with poor teeth.
“We want to breed lambs with wide shoulders that will carry meat, an animal that is thick, squat, a proper hill type that is easy finishing and cheap to keep. Performance recording greatly aids this."