By Debbie James

A data-driven approach to genetic improvement is bringing multiple benefits to the hill lamb system the Lloyd-Williams family run on their organic farm near Aberystwyth.

More than half of their land is made up of unimproved hill pasture so they need a hardy ewe which can produce lambs from a low input system.

By using performance recording to inform flock management decisions, the 720-ewe Welsh mountain flock is producing fast growing lambs that can finish off grass in a hill system.

“Every year, with no change to our management and no extra feed, genetics are allowing us to produce more meat from more efficient sheep,’’ says Rhodri Lloyd-Williams, who farms with his father, Simon, on the holding at Moelgolomen, Talybont.

The business is a member of ProHill, a group of Welsh mountain sheep producers from across Wales who have joined forces to raise the commercial standard of regional types of hill sheep.

The breeders are advancing flock output by using the latest genetics technology and performance recording to record their commercially-managed hill flocks.

The farmers use the Hill Index, developed by Signet and Hybu Cig Cymru (HCC) to combine both maternal and carcass traits.

Signet uses the data to calculate the Hill Index, to identify the best performing sheep and monitor progress.

Through performance recording, the ProHill farmers are producing purebred, high index rams from more than 10,000 Welsh breeding ewes – tups that have been bred to produce earlier finishing lambs and flock replacements with exceptional maternal ability.

Performance recording has also resulted in improved carcass weights and grades.

The Lloyd-Williamses breed their own replacements – they only buy breeding rams.

Lambs that they don’t retain for breeding are sold fat – by performance recording they are reducing the time taken for lambs to achieve sale weight and improving conformation grades but maintaining ewe size and maintenance requirements.

Selecting for lamb growth, muscle depth and carcase conformation ties in with maternal selection in the females for lamb growth and survival, says Rhodri.

His priority is a hardy 40-45kg ewe since more than half the unit rises to 1,500 feet and is made up of unimproved hill pasture: the flock is outwintered at 1,000 feet.

“Our target has been for the ewes to wean their body weight in lamb and we’re getting there,’’ he says.

Last year’s lambs were finished off grass to average of 14kg deadweight, and the majority were within specification – mostly Rs and with an increasing number of Us.

Before they started performance recording 20 years ago, they were producing 11-12kg lambs and many of these were sold through the market as stores.

Rhodri says this demonstrates the benefits of recording.

Ewes are producing more lambs with no extra feed and scanning percentage has improved from 120 per cent to 145 per cent since 2000.

“We are in awe of the ewes we are now breeding and managing, their ability to lamb outdoors at 700 feet and produce lambs that finish solely off forage,’’ says Mr Lloyd-Williams.

All ProHill flocks have a strong focus on maximising performance from grass alone, he adds, as feeding concentrates can hide an animal’s potential.

“I like to challenge our buyers to shake a bucket at the sheep we offer for sale, none of them have ever seen concentrates,’’ says Rhodri.

Performance recording in the hills had a huge trickle-down effect on the whole sheep industry, he suggests.

“It’s worth supporting performance recording because of the return on investment.”