Wednesday, 1 February 2017

Are you up for the challenge?

Dr Liz Genever, AHDB Beef & Lamb senior livestock scientist, is calling on English sheep producers to take part in a new initiative that aims to understand the consequences of the rearing phase on the lifetime performance of ewes. Here she blogs about the project and what you can do to get involved.

Liz GeneverThe Challenge Sheep project is a new AHDB Beef & Lamb research project which aims to improve the efficiency of breeding flocks in England by looking at the management of ewe replacements. The project will track around 5,000 replacements from a range of sheep farms over seven years to understand how flock performance can be improved.

The initiative is the successor of the sheep key performance indicator (KPI) project, which ran from 2013 until 2016, and gathered and analysed data from three flocks in England. One of the key questions identified by this project was what impact the rearing phase had on ewe lamb performance when they became shearlings and later into life. For example, one of the project farms had an issue with lungworm in shearlings and the impact of that on their performance is seen for at least two production years after they are treated.

AHDB research and on-farm trials have shown that there are clear improvements to be made in managing replacement ewes entering the national flock. The Longwool project (funded by the Meat and Livestock Commission and Defra in 2007) found that up to 15 % of replacements are not retained after their first breeding season due to culling or death. 

Young sheep can also have a negative impact on overall flock performance due to poor lamb growth rates. In England, around 1.6 million ewes are entering the flock for the first time per year. Data from 1,800 ewes in the Longwool project suggests around 4% died in their first year, with another 7% being culled after their first year. If this was applied to the English sheep flock it would equate to around £14 million of value being lost to the industry each year due to culling and death in the first breeding year. This is based on shearlings being valued at £120 and with a 50% reduction in value if culled.

The Challenge Sheep project will be based on similar research that has been done around hoggets in Australia and New Zealand. The results of the project have been translated into literature by Beef + Lamb New Zealand and we want to draw on their methodologies, such as participatory research, to benefit our own industry.

Your industry needs you!
We are looking to recruit sheep producers who will be keen to use the data they are collecting via electronic identification (EID) to improve their decisions on ewe management. All farms that participate in the project will have access to cutting-edge information and will be supported by the AHDB research and knowledge exchange team to interpret the data so they can get the maximum benefit for their business. The aim is also to improve the gross margin of the Challenge Sheep farms by 25% over the duration of the project. The findings of the project will be communicated to industry through events, newsletters and articles involving the successful producers.

The project requires accurate data such as weights, body condition score, lambing data and lamb performance, which is already being collected through our benchmarking programme, so it should just be a case of looking at the data differently and making decisions supported by information gathered from the project. 

Any producers who are interested need to fill in an application form and then the AHDB Beef & Lamb research team will create a shortlist. In late spring/early summer I will be visiting the shortlisted farms, together with the newly appointed Challenge Sheep project manager before the final decisions are made. We are aiming to visit at least ten farms across England.

For more information about the project email me or phone 07790 378349, or you can contact your regional Knowledge Exchange Manager.

To apply to take part in the project visit the Challenge Sheep webpage, the deadline for applications is Monday 20 February.