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The 2017 winner of the AHDB Beef & Lamb Better Returns Programme Improved Flock Award for Suffolk sheep is the Lavendon flock owned by A J Cony & Partners, Manor House Farm, Harrold, Bedfordshire. This award is presented to the English Signet performance recorded flock that makes the greatest improvement in the breeding potential of the lamb crop during the previous year.

The AHDB Better Returns Programme aims to highlight the financial impact that improved breeding and better lamb selection strategies can have on commercial flock profitability.

This award seeks to reward those breeders that are using Estimated Breeding Values to enhance the performance of their flocks and assist them to promote their achievement. The impact of performance recorded stock is significant and is increasing every year because of the activities of progressive farmers.

James Barker and his family have been at Manor House farm since the mid-1940s. Managed
by himself and his father Alan Barker they run a 160 ewe pedigree Suffolk flock, a 150 ewe commercial flock as well as a successful arable enterprise. The commercial flock are Suffolk ewes crossed with Highlander (composite) rams and are solely used for lamb production. They are managed to lamb in December in order to hit the early season lamb market.  

The pedigree Suffolk flock was originally established in 1958 by James’ grandfather. He was attracted to them at the time due to their prospects of a becoming a leading terminal sire breed. They added to his collection of pedigree stock along with his Large White pigs and herd of Ayrshire dairy cows. The flock has kept their place within the business due to their fast growth rates and functionality.

The Lavendon flock began performance recording in 1996 within farm and in 1998 they joined the Sire Reference Scheme and were a member until it disbanded. When selecting traits to concentrate on, James thinks growth rate is important. The faster the lambs grow and reach slaughter targets, the higher the market prices tend to be and thus the production costs are lower. Lambs that are currently being finished at Manor Farm are converting approximately 4kg feed: 1 kg gain in body weight and nearly half of the lambs born in 2017 have already been sent for slaughter, showing the genetic gains the Lavendon flock has made. The muscle depth EBV is also a priority trait for James, due to the carcase attributes associated. They has made significant progress within this trait and are within the top 5% of the breed with an average depth of 3.98mm. Fat depth is not a major concern and a balanced approach is obtained by controlling the ewes allocated mating groups. A positive litter size value has recently become more important to ensure there are enough lambs produced, increasing lambing percentage.

The Lavendon flock have 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, this is usually when a new ram and bloodline has been introduced to the flock as its genetic potential can 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 looking to buy functional, pedigree shearling rams. They have the same repeat buyers each year allowing them to build up a great reputation for the flock.

James has had a large involvement within AHDB projects and events. Manor House hosted the BRP Ram Management: Focus on ‘Fit for Purpose’ Breeding Ram evening event and James was also a member of the Sheep Progressive Farmers group organised by AHDB. The Lavendon Suffolk flock have also had a large involvement within the ongoing RamCompare project whereby three of their rams are used.

The Lavendon flock breed their own replacements, however they do also buy in quality bloodlines. Selecting excellent sires is vital and James has shown he is very capable of via his sire choices made in 2016. 80% of the lambs recorded were from a Top 1% tup – two from the Godwick Flock; Godwick Weyland, Godwick Wodan and two home bred rams; Lavendon Xerxes, Lavendon Hawkes Bay. The rest of the lambs were from home bred top 10% tup.

Looking forward, James and Alan hope to continue their successes and keep breeding high index sheep. They hope to have an increase in sales of rams as there is an increasing demand for functional tups. They hope that more sheep breeders to involve themselves in performance recording their flock and so that sheep can make the same genetic advances as the dairy and beef industry.

When asked about winning the award this year James said that he was surprised but very pleased especially as this is the second time in which the Barkers have won. He said that the award was confirmation that they are improving and that they are completing their goal of producing good functioning high index sheep.  The Lavendon Flock had a Terminal Sire Index of 3.95 placing them within the top 5% of the breed within 2016. James would like to thank his family and all who work at Manor House Farm for all their hard work throughout the years that have allowed them to progress and improve, ultimately allowing them to win this award.

EBVs for Godwick Weyland

As the chart shows Godwick Weyland is superior in all traits except litter size, however his maternal ability EBV is high.

Weyland has exceptional growth rates, at scanning he is 16.91kg heavier than average.

With an economic index of £5.59, this places him comfortably within the Top 1% of the breed.