The UK welcomed a high-profile Inward Mission (IM) from China 17-28 June 2017 built around the National Sheep Association’s Sheep South West held near Tiverton, Devon. 23 members of the Sheep & Goat Association of the China Animal Agriculture Association (CAAA) came to look at the British sheep sector to explore opportunities for future trade both for sheep meat and breeding stock. The visit was supported by the Agriculture & Horticulture Development Board (AHDB) with Richard Saunders co-ordinating the farm visits.
China has a sheep population of around 160 million based around fifty native breeds of sheep with the Hoo being one of the largest numerically having good mothering ability and profligacy (2.6 lambs per ewe). Crossing breeds such as the Suffolk, Dorset, South African White Dorper and Australian White have been introduced over the years for quality sheep meat production with some Texel and Charollais tups joining them more recently. Lambs aim for a target weight of 40-50kg at around 3-4 months. A two-tier system is often at play: farms either specialising in breeding until weaning age; or purchasing as stores and finishing lambs. Integrated farm-to-plate systems are uncommon but on the rise.
The grazing season is short (max 4-5 months) in many parts of China so a feedlot system is the norm feeding concentrated pellets or a TMR rather than forage. The scale of sheep production in China varies significantly to the UK with flocks of up to 15,000 ewes and 200,000-head finishing units. In this intensive system, the aim is to have ewes lamb three times in two years. Total lamb production is 4,500,000t (around ten times that of the UK) with annual per capita meat consumption at 3kg lamb (compared to 2kg in the UK).
An itinerary was put together to show as many facets of the UK’s sheep sector as possible during the five days dedicated to farm tours.
Sedgemoor Auction Mart near Bridgwater, Somerset was first stop with auctioneer and AHDB Beef & Lamb Board Member Robert Venner explaining the chain of supply from farm to plate and introducing the concept of selling through a ‘live’ market. Other topics covered included EID tagging, traceability, farm assurance and lamb grading. 2,000 lambs then went under the hammer with the best making 247ppkg (£96.50) for a 39kg pen with heavier lambs selling to a top of £124.
The nearby high-class butcher’s shop, Pyne’s of Somerset, puts around 30 lambs through the store each week via local abattoir Stillman's, with owner Malcolm Pyne ably showcasing quality English lamb. At Pyne’s recently-opened 8,000ft cutting facility next door, butcher Ian Farmer gave a cutting demonstration both of traditional English joints as well as more modern cuts aimed at minimising waste and maximising the value of the carcase.
On 20th June, the delegates attended the NSA Sheep South West. At the AHDB stand, the group were able to learn about the work of the Agriculture & Horticulture Development Board from performance recording, scanning, grading, breeding and genetics through to the carcase itself with the aim of improving the product and adding value for farmers. Thanks go to all the AHDB staff including Joseph Keating, Liz Genever, Sam Boon, Steve Powdrill, Katie Brian, Stuart Nellist & Martin Eccles for giving of their time.
Following a welcome from Phil Stocker, CEO of the National Sheep Association, the visitors toured the various breed society stands to look at the diversity and strength-in-depth of British breeds with the help of Margaret Dalton, NSA Chairman, and Llew Thomas, Chairman of NSA Wales.
Set in the Dartmoor National Park conservation area, Day Three took in Peter Baber’s breeding flocks of Ex-Lana (710 ewes), Suffolk (140), Texel (110) & SufTex (100). The Ex-Lana is a composite of 14 breeds and is a hair sheep (wool-shedding). Peter operates as part of the SIG (Sheep Improved Genetics) Group based on a philosophy of making the best use of grass and minimising manual inputs.
The aim is to produce superior breeding stock and quality meat that is both economically and environmentally efficient. A Board Member of AHDB Beef & Lamb, Peter has been a key mover in establishing the West Country Beef & Lamb PGI.
That afternoon, the group headed to Darts Farm near Topsham - winner of the Best Farm Shop award 2015 & 2016. Established as a small pick-your-own business in 1971 by his father, Jim Dart (one of three sons that now run the company) gave an overview of the operation which - from humble beginnings – has become what Jim describes as a ‘’regional destination’’.
On the cattle side, Ruby Red Devons provide the beef and fifty lambs are selected each week for the shop from Exeter or Sedgemoor markets by butchers Alastair & Philip David.
Thursday was predominantly a Texel day. In the morning, Paul Quick - together with father Bill and brother Mark - presented the Loosebeare flock near Crediton which numbers 300 Texel ewes, 100 Charollais females plus 1,200 Suffolk Mules put to both sires.
In a practical demonstration, Paul explained the attributes of the Texel ram of muscle, length of loin and a good back end, and then went through the strengths of the Texel as a breeding ewe with its ability to convert forage well and achieve a lean carcase for prime lamb production. Texel-sired lambs account for around 30% of all crossbred lamb progeny born in the UK.
That afternoon, the group travelled to the Cotswolds and met with Aubrey & Sue Andrews who run the Miserden Texel & Blue Texel flocks.
From a strong technical base of performance recording (all sheep are in the top 25% of breed) which includes participation in a genotyping project looking at reducing foot rot and mastitis, the Andrews breed Texel rams with good growth rate and conformation with the commercial customer in mind, as well as females for other breeders.
The final farm visit took place on Monday 26th June at Jamie Wild's 2000-head North Country Mule and 150 pedigree Charollais flocks based at Redhill Farm, Barrowden, Rutland.
First stop were the Mules which lamb early March to Charollais tups with a target weight of 40kg and grade of R3L and above - all going to Morrisons where they have achieved an average carcase weight of 19.7kg.
Jamie explained the strengths of the Charollais as a terminal sire - namely easy lambing, good growth with very good muscularity. The group then moved onto the pedigree Charollais flock to look at a bunch of ewes recently weaned from their lambs. Key traits of the breed are revealed in prolific offspring with lambs easily born and quick to get up and suck.
Next up were the Charollais tups with a bunch of ram lambs and shearling tups respectively. The visitors saw a demonstration of the performance recording undertaken at the farm with lambs weighed at birth, 8 weeks and 17 weeks. Eye muscle depth and back fat are also scanned at 17 weeks with the highest-performing progeny put through a CT scanner to assess body mass.
Grateful thanks go to all the farms and premises visited as well as for the generous hospitality of all the hosts.