RESEARCH commissioned by Marks & Spencer has found that the use of New Zealand sheep genetics could offer sustainability benefits for UK sheep farmers.
The work, which was jointly conducted by the Agri-Food & Biosciences Institute (AFBI) and the College of Agriculture, Food and Rural Enterprise (CAFRE), investigated the merits of using Highlander and Primera genetics in UK sheep flocks to maximise value in the supply chain through increased lamb output and reduced production and processing costs. The study was also supported by Focus Genetics and Linden Foods.
Trials took place on two upland flocks belonging to the Buccleuch Group and compared a ‘typical’ UK production system of Mule and Texel x Mule ewes, with Highlander and Highlander x Blackface ewes to represent different replacement breeding strategies.
These ewes were crossed with Texel rams, to represent a typical UK terminal sire, as well as UK-bred and NZ-bred Primera rams. Performance was recorded throughout the production and processing cycle, finishing with an evaluation of meat-eating quality using consumer taste panels.
The trial concluded that increasing lamb output and production efficiency by switching from Mule to Highlander ewes offered the opportunity to develop a more sustainable lamb supply chain through reducing on farm costs and greenhouse gas emissions, whilst maintaining product quality, processing efficiency and meat eating quality. Replacing Texel rams with Primera resulted in faster growth rates and a higher proportion of high-value cuts, although Primera-sired lambs were potentially less efficient for meat processors due to their higher fat cover.
Commenting on the results of the trial, AFBI scientist, Dr Ronald Annett, said: “The Highlander ewe showed excellent fertility and rearing ability and the Primera-sired lambs portrayed superior growth rates and had higher wholesale value.
“Hopefully this study will make UK farmers think about what drives their returns. It highlights the importance of production efficiency, rather than focusing solely on lamb price or carcass conformation. The trial has demonstrated the importance of maternal genetics in driving production and we hope farmers will take this on board.”
Steve McLean, head of agriculture and fisheries sourcing at M&S, added: “For a number of years commercial volatility has seen increasing numbers of sheep producers leaving the industry in the UK. We commissioned this work as one of our PaceSetter projects within our Farming for the Future programme. Over the last seven years we have worked with Focus Genetics and a number of UK farmers to try to replicate their successful New Zealand lamb production model in the UK.
“We recognise that there are a large number of different production systems in the UK and this trial is simply about establishing baseline information to allow producers to make their own informed decisions on the production model that best suits their farm.”
Graham Leech, CEO of Focus Genetics, concluded: “We welcome the results of the study and hope it will encourage more UK farmers to invest in Focus Genetics breeds. We would like to grow our UK business and we hope farmers will convert after seeing such positive scientific results. As the world seeks more sustainable food production, our genetics are well placed to help farmers improve on-farm efficiency.”