Performance recording is resulting in more lambs hitting finishing weights in a Pembrokeshire hill flock.

The Davies family produce lambs from a flock of Welsh Mountain ewes on the Preseli Hills, an extensive system that feeds no concentrates.

Historically, half the lambs from the 5,000-ewe flock were sold as stores as they struggled to fatten on the hill land with its peaty, wet soils but performance recording has changed that.

In 2019 they started recording with Hybu Cig Cymru’s (HCC) Hill Ram Scheme to improve genetics across the flock.

Four breeding seasons later and there are early signs of the “trickle-down effect’’ of genetic gains, including more lambs hitting slaughter weights.

Selecting flock replacements and tups based on back-fat scanning results is one reason for that improvement, says Dyfed Davies, who farms with his parents, Berian and Llinos, and uncle and aunt, Ken and Ceri Davies.

“Animals with high levels of back fat tend to be easier fleshing and fattening and have better milk production.

“We could finish more lambs by introducing concentrates or with heavier use of fertiliser but by selecting on back fat scores and other traits we are producing quicker finishing lambs off what are relatively poor pastures.’’

Although maternal traits important in the hill ewe can take many generations to filter through, he is already seeing improvements, with 10% more lambs sold as fat in 2022 compared to numbers before performance recording.

“If we can achieve a better carcass in less time with no bought-in feed it will help farm profitability,’’ said Dyfed.

Fat lambs are sold at an average deadweight of 19kg from mid-October until Christmas; lambs that don’t finish are sold as stores during this period.

The Davies’ run two hefted hill flocks of Tregaron-type Welsh Mountain ewes on a low input system at Eisteddfa Fawr, near Crymych, where the breeding objectives have traditionally prioritised breed type and ewe type.

“We don’t want a ewe with a mature weight much beyond 60kg and, because of the weather conditions we experience on the hill, she must have a tight coat,’’ says Dyfed.

He saw performance recording as a means of complementing those objectives but a barrier to that, especially for recording parentage, was the large number of ewes in the flock and the extensive system with all lambing outdoors.

Tissue Sampling Unit (TSU) technology offered through the Hill Ram Scheme, with HCC meeting the sampling cost, provided that opportunity.

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It allows larger numbers of sheep to be easily recorded in their natural environment.

Ten per cent of the flock is now performance recorded.

Three hundred and fifty of the best looking yearlings by type were initially selected and replacements have been bred from those since 2019.

Their progeny are EID tagged and DNA samples taken from their ears. The analysis of the DNA is matched to that of the ewes and allows parentage to be assigned.

The Davies’ focus is on the maternal ability of ewes; lamb weights and back fat levels are recorded at eight weeks and 20 weeks.

Having those figures allows them to make better breeding decisions.

To drive genetic gains, better performing ewe lambs are retained as replacements and as tups for home use or to sell as breeding rams.

It forms part of the farm’s long term strategy to produce hardy and efficient replacements and heavier lambs without introducing concentrates or heavy use of fertiliser.

“It is very hard to make money in a hill system like ours if you introduce a lot of cost,’’ Mr Davies reckons.

“By improving genetics across the entire flock the hope is that we can produce more from the same inputs as before.

“We are still at the early stages because it is a long term project but we are just starting to see improvements.’’