thorbeck flock

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hampshire down

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The farming industry is one that revolves around traditions; hard work, family values and of course good quality stock. In recent years however new means of technology have not only been introduced to the farming world, but welcomed.

Jim and Jane Birkwood of Thorbeck Farm, between Louth and Grimsby, Lincolnshire are currently at the forefront of this modern movement; they’ve introduced EBLEX’s Signet Sire Reference Scheme (SRS) to improve their pedigree Hampshire Down flock genetics and subsequently enable commercial sheep farmers to select rams with superior breeding potential that leave higher value lambs at reduced cost and with less environmental impact. In fact, the performance recording scheme has helped their Thorbeck flock’s genetic merit to improve by more than 30% in the last five years.

“The Hampshire Down is a terminal sire breed ideally suited to today’s commercial marketplace; it is noted for leaving crossbred lambs reared on grass based systems with superior growth rates, good conformation and killing out percentage,” Jim explains. “Introducing performance recording is a tool that is enabling breeders like ourselves to select for key performance traits and further improve the breed’s commercial productivity. At the same time, we together with other breeders are also ensuring we retain the Hampshire Down’s native characteristics, its hardiness, longevity and its ability to leave lively lambs.”

Performance recording is simple and straightforward, says Jim. “We weigh the lambs at birth, at eight weeks, and when they’re 21 weeks of age we weigh and scan them on farm. Once all the information is gathered, a set of Estimated Breeding Values (EBVs) are produced which help us to identify the lambs with superior breeding potential – for us, they must be within the breed’s top 20% for growth rate and muscle depth. They must also have a small covering of fat. This year for the first time, we are planning to introduce one of the most modern recording tools, CT scanning which will help us select even more accurately for those key traits.”

Thorbeck Farm has been running for almost a decade, a somewhat short period when the Birkwood’s successes are considered. Initially they began with a commercial flock but after attending shows and really getting to know the farming community that surrounded them, they decided to branch out. “We had always gone to the shows, and after looking around, we were aware of the Hampshire Down’s growing popularity as a terminal sire breed, so in 2004 we decided to disperse our commercial flock and started to establish a pedigree flock of Hampshire Downs.

The temptation of farming lured Jim and Jane in 2000 when they moved into their home, which just so happened to be accompanied by a wonderful stretch of land. “I did some work for a commercial sheep farmer and bought some ewes soon after. I’ve always been interested in live stock but I’m an electrical contractor by trade, that’s what I do primarily. I honestly do prefer the farm work to the electrical contracting, working with the sheep relaxes me; it’s something I want to do. It’s become more than a hobby now; it’s turned into a passion.”

Now as fully-fledged, passionate farmers, the Birkwood’s admit that their multi award winning pedigree flock wouldn’t have been as successful had it not been for the Hampshire Down SRS. Jim insists that the scheme’s rewards are endless and hopes that more commercial farmers will make use of the EBVs which accompany each ram offered for sale and indicate his breeding potential. “EBVs reflect what’s really under a ram’s skin – a variety of factors influence his appearance making it virtually impossible to identify those with superior breeding potential by eye alone.

“For me, I use the data to select rams within the breed’s top 10% to introduce to my flock to make further improvements; they help me breed better, higher performing rams which will give me good, strong replacement ewes. It also encourages me to select for good growth which is extremely important when an increasing number of commercial farmers are seeking to cut costs and improve margins by rearing all their lambs to target finishing weight off milk and grass alone. Finishing lambs more quickly can reduce the vet and med bill, labour requirements and free up grassland for other purposes.”

While a number of other terminal breeds have taken up Signet SRS and CT Scanning, Jim is proud of fellow Hampshire Down breeders’ enthusiastic take up. “More than 60% of the UK bred Hampshire Down stock sires last year were performance recorded themselves as lambs. Also, over 40% of the stock rams that sired pedigree Hampshire Down lambs were officially rated within the trait leading top 10% of the breed. In addition, 57% of the lambs notified to the Hampshire Down Sheep Breeders’ Association are now weight recorded, an impressive achievement within a terminal sire breed of this size.

“We want to get the message across that to use a Hampshire ram as a terminal sire is the best way to go,” and as a newly elected member of the Hampshire Down council, Jim’s word is a word you can trust.

When the Birkwood’s sell stock to the commercial famers at auctions across the country, they’re proactively working for their benefit. “We like to think were doing the homework for the commercial farmers. This technology is fast, modern and very efficient; it’s vital if you want to breed a better animal. All commercial farmers are different; they all want something different to do a particular job. It’s my job to breed them a ram to fulfil their requirements. Some want length, some want muscle, but all want longevity, which is key nowadays” Jim continued.

While enthusiastic supporters of the reference scheme, Jim and Jane have also achieved successes at a number of shows last year, including the Great Yorkshire. “We’ve proved that selecting for economic traits and top conformation can go hand in hand,” says Jane referring to their biggest winner, Thorbeck Buster won a total of seven awards in 2009 and is within the breed’s top 10% on performance data. “But there’s no point in doing it just once, you’ve got to sustain it each year and keep the shop window open so to speak, if you are to showcase properly.” And showcase they do, in front of industry experts and passionate crowds. “The shows are a lot of work however they’re also a lot of fun,” he says.

Having improved their flock massively over the last five years, the Birkwood’s have proved that the Hampshire Down SRS scheme really does work and they have plans to continue to make similar progress in the future. “What’s more our commercial buyers are finding our rams are delivering the goods and are returning for more. The proof is most defiantly in the pudding,” declares Jim, and rightly so.

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