A Marks and Spencer (M&S;) sustainable lamb trial shows New Zealand sheep genetics beat traditional practice, offering multiple benefits to United Kingdom sheep farmers.
The trial investigated the merits of using Focus Genetics' Highlander and Primera breeds in UK sheep flocks to maximise value in the supply chain through increased lamb output and reduced production and processing costs.
Two upland flocks were used to compare a typical UK production system of Mule and Texel x Mule ewes, with Highlander and Highlander x Blackface ewes to represent different replacement breeding strategies.
The ewes were crossed with Texel rams, to represent a typical UK terminal sire, as well as UK-bred and New Zealand-bred Primera rams. Performance was recorded throughout the production and processing cycle, finishing with an evaluation of the meat's eating quality.
The trial concluded that switching from Mule to Highlander ewes offered the opportunity to develop a more sustainable lamb supply chain by reducing on-farm costs and greenhouse gas emissions, while maintaining product quality, processing efficiency and meat eating quality.
Replacing Texel rams with Primera resulted in faster growth rates and a higher proportion of high-value cuts, although Primera-sired lambs were potentially less efficient for meat processors because of their higher fat cover.
Focus Genetics, based in Napier, has been supplying New Zealand Highlander and Primera genetics for seven years.
UK manager Bayden Wilson says the independent trial was welcome affirmation of its high-quality offering, giving sustainability and profitability to farmers. UK Genetics is manned seasonally and has a client list of 130 farmers.
"We supply breeding rams from five breeders throughout the UK," he says. "We have two breeds. One is the Highlander, which is bred as the maternal sheep to be the ewe, and we have Primera, our terminal meat breed."
Focus Genetics' nucleus Primera flock is from Simon Beamish's Awapai farm, in Whanawhana, overlooking the Ngaruroro River in Hawke's Bay. He also runs a flock of Highlander for his own use, capitalising on the outstanding hybrid vigour. He says his family has been involved with genetics for three of the past five generations and points out the trial was vindication of their family's work and it was large scale.
"Once the lambs are born they get finished to a particular liveweight and they all go off to the meatworks where data is collated from a number of cuts of meat, from the hindquarter through the loin. There are something like 15 people, along with the staff at Silver Fern in Takapau, who do the weighing and measuring - there is a lot of data collected.
"In the last few years some of those cuts have been sent to the UK for testing at Bristol University. It's a bit like wine tasting with taste panels."
The M&S; trial was jointly conducted by the Agri-Food and Biosciences Institute (AFBI) and the College of Agriculture, Food and Rural Enterprise (CAFRE) and supported by Focus Genetics and Linden Foods.
Commenting on the trial's results, AFBI scientist Dr Ronald Annett says, "The Highlander ewe showed excellent fertility and rearing ability and the Primera-sired lambs portrayed superior growth rates and had higher wholesale value.
"Hopefully, this study will make UK farmers think about what drives their returns. It highlights the importance of production efficiency, rather than focusing solely on lamb price or carcass conformation. The trial has demonstrated the importance of maternal genetics in driving production and we hope farmers will take this on board."
Steve McLean, head of agriculture and fisheries sourcing at M&S;, says that for a number of years commercial volatility had seen increasing numbers of sheep producers leaving the UK industry.
"We commissioned this work as one of our PaceSetter projects within our Farming for the Future programme. Over the last seven years we have worked with Focus Genetics and a number of UK farmers to try to replicate their successful New Zealand lamb production model in the UK. We recognise that there are a large number of different production systems in the UK and this trial is simply about establishing baseline information to allow producers to make their own informed decisions on the production model that best suits their farm."
Graham Leech, chief executive of Focus Genetics, hopes it will boost its UK business.
"We hope farmers will convert after seeing such positive scientific results," he says. "As the world seeks more sustainable food production, our genetics are well placed to help farmers improve on-farm efficiency."
M&S; is one of the UK's leading retailers with about 21 million customers each week.