The Barker family (trading as A J Cony & Partners) have been breeding Suffolk sheep for the past 70 years. Concentrating on high growth rate and large muscle depth breeding values as well as running a controlled management system has allowed James’ Lavendon flock to climb into the top 5% of the breed.
The Barker family have been at Manor House farm in Harrold, Bedfordshire since the mid-1940s. James and dad, Alan, now manage the farm where they have a 160 pedigree Suffolk ewe flock and a 150 ewe commercial flock. Running alongside the sheep is an arable enterprise, growing a rotation of winter wheat, winter oats and winter beans over 450 acres with most of the wheat produced going to the Weetabix factory at Burton Latimer. Manor House is also home to the Threeshires Stud for Exmoor Ponies. There is around 20 ponies in the herd and the Barkers have had them for around 30 years and have great success with them, previously winning ‘Exmoor Pony of the Year’ and have had a colt exported to Germany.
The pedigree Suffolk flock was originally established at Manor House in 1958 by James’ grandfather. He was attracted to them due to their prospects of becoming a leading terminal sire breed. They would add to his collection of pedigree stock of Large White pigs and Ayrshire dairy cows herd. The Suffolk flock has kept their place within the business due to their fast growth rates and functionality. The commercial flock that James runs alongside the pedigree flock is made up of Suffolk ewes crossed with a Highlander (composite) rams and are solely used for slaughter lamb production. This flock lambs inside with the pedigree flock at the end of December, in order for the lambs to be ready for the Easter market.
James studied Applied Animal Science at SAC in Edinburgh and upon his return he was very enthusiastic about the prospects of performance recording. Lavendon began recording their flock from home in 1996 and in 1998 they joined the Sire Referencing Scheme and were a member until it disbanded.
When creating a mating strategy there are particular traits that James considers. Growth rate is greatly important, the faster the lambs grow and reach slaughter targets the better. The market prices tend to be higher thus lower production costs are associated. Lambs that are currently being finished at Manor Farm are converting approximately 4kg feed: 1kg gain in body weight with nearly half of the lambs born in 2017 already sent for slaughter. James also concentrates highly on the muscle depth EBV, the efforts of which can be seen as the average for the Lavendon flock is 3.98mm placing them within the top 5% of the breed. Fat depth is not a major concern and a balanced approach is obtained by controlling their allocated mating groups. The genetically fatter ewes are placed with a leaner ram and vice versa, to ensure that there is enough fat present to allow lambs to finish quickly. More recently a positive litter size EBV has become a higher priority to ensure that the lambing percentage is kept up and that there are enough lambs each season. James also selects his ewes on their ability to lamb unassisted and the vigour levels of their lambs. Any ewes that have a particularly high level of ‘dagging’ present or other management issues are lambed with the commercial flock.
The Lavendon flock breeds their own replacements however they do also buy in quality bloodlines from other performance recorded flocks. They have done this recently, 28 ewes have been bought in from Hans Porksen (Hans) and 25 ewes from John Garner (Godwick). Both groups of ewes are to excellent sires; Hans Fokker 95 (Top 1%), Sandyknowe Remainder (Top 10%) from the Hans flock and Godwick Wodan (Top 1%) from the Godwick Flock.
James has previously taken advantage of the Computer Tomography (CT) Scanning service provided by Signet. This additional service provides a welfare friendly way to assessing the total weight of muscle and fat within a carcass as well as the overall gigot muscularity. The technology gives more accurate and reliable results than those obtained through ultrasound scanning. They take around 15 – 20 lambs, if they chose to utilise the service, usually when a new ram and bloodline has been introduced to the flock as this allows its genetic potential to be seen more clearly and more data to be available for the new ram.
The Barkers sell all their sheep off farm their main customers are those who also lamb early with the same management plan; getting lambs on the ground and finish them to 40kg as fast as possible with the use of creep feeding as well as forage. Therefore they all require a sound and functional sheep. James has found that he has continual repeat custom for shearling rams, allowing them to build a good reputation with these buyers, acting as their marketing strategy as no sheep are sold through a ring or shown throughout the summer months. Manor House has however held open events for AHDB projects such as the BRP Ram Management: Focus on ‘Fit for Purpose’ Breeding Ram evening which attracts many different types of farmers that may not have heard of the flock before.
James has been very involved within AHDB Projects. He was a member of the Sheep Progressive Farmers group and is the only breeder to have provided three rams to be used within the RamCompare Project. Kersey Nutcracker was provided for Artificial Insemination (AI), Lavendon 82 (Y51:13:082) for Natural Insemination and Antony Pearce, Stoke Mandeville selected Lavendon Y51:13:068 as his farm choice ram. James looks forward to the results of the project and the positive impact that it can have on the industry.
The Lavendon flock won the Improved Flock Award for the Suffolk breed this year. The award seeks to reward those breeders that are using Estimated Breeding Values to enhance the performance of their flocks and assist them in promoting their achievement.
Looking forward, James and Alan hope to continue their successes and keep breeding high index sheep. They aspire to have an increase in sales of rams as there is an increasing demand for functional tups. The future of traits such as growth rate interests James as he is unsure as to how much more the trait can improve. However he believes that the average muscle depth of the flock has a large amount of scope for improvement. The Lavendon flock hope that more sheep breeders become involved in performance recording their flock and so that sheep can make the same genetic advances as the dairy and beef industry.