Where will the UK sheep industry be in in 10 years? If you are “ Mr Average Sheep Farmer and aged 60” perhaps you are not that bothered because by then you will be retired . If you are me - 60yrs + AND a ram breeder AND have sons in a business that I want to give them a long term living then the future direction of the sheep industry is vitally important. The critical questions then are how big will the sheep industry be and what will it look like in 10 year’s time? The answers to these questions will basically depend on the respective profitability of sheep and of competing enterprises over the next few years, bearing in mind that changes to subsidies will also play their part. Today the average sheep farmer loses money ( See Eblex Figures below ). Money from SFPs and environmental schemes and other non sheep income is being used to subsidise the sheep enterprise on half the sheep farms in the UK. This situation cannot persist as subsidies are reduced so sheep farmers will be forced to radically alter their businesses to improve their bottom line. There are only two ways to improve the profits of a sheep enterprise – increase value of products through higher prices or more output or alternatively reduce costs. The following 2 tables indicate that there is plenty of room for immediate improvement with such a large proportion of lambs still missing target spec and the continuing fall in the lambing rate So what do I foresee over the next 10 years? • Continued erosion of subsidies due either to specific political decisions or the effects of inflation • Minimal room for price increases as all the evidence shows that as lamb goes up in value consumption declines. • Continued domination of supermarkets as buyers who already sell 72% of all lamb sold in UK • Lamb production will be pushed more towards marginal ground and into the hills as more profitable enterprises including bioenergy continue to mop up land that can be cropped Picture of EasyRam Suffolk Shearling working in Snowdonia So how will this scenario affect sheep producers and will they be willing to change? This is the 1000$ question because if sheep farmers embrace change and create profitable businesses many commentators foresee a good future with increasing world demand for sheep meat. I expect a significant part of the industry to embrace change and that the rest to be forced to leave the industry. This view is derived from personal experience over the last 10 years and from talking to many of the younger and or more adventurous sheep farmers. What we have been trying to do over recent years would not have been possible 10 to 15 years ago. But now there are large numbers of Early Adopters who have travelled the world either as Nuffield Scholars or HCC Scholars or purely out of curiosity. They have returned full of ideas and confidence that as individuals they can create viable long term sheep enterprises by embracing change. So what changes do I foresee and why? • Labour is one of the industry’s biggest costs and has to be reduced either by running more sheep per labour unit or running similar numbers with less time spent on the sheep. This will be achieved by concentrating on: Ewes that require less labour. Some of these will be Easy Care type ewes but the majority will have to come from farmers selecting sheep from a functional as opposed to a cosmetic standpoint Low cost management systems such as outdoor lambing. • More use of grass ( the cheapest feed ) and less of concentrates ( the dearest )The driver for this change will be economic but this change will play very well with the consumer from both a perception viewpoint and from the point of reducing the industry’s carbon footprint • Increased rearing rate and more lambs in spec. Improvements in these areas will be rapid once sheep farmers receive less outside income. • Increasing % of self replacing flocks. This will be a significant change that will be driven by flockowners having no other way of improving the maternal performance of their flocks. Prolificacy, lamb survivability, milkiness, liveability as well as the normal health traits such as worm resistance/resilience,reduced mastitis and less Footrot and less dags – all these traits can be improved more effectively by breeding than culling and to do this self - replacing flocks are essential. • More use of technology. EID will eventually be seen as one of the biggest advances for the sheep industry over the last century allowing selection based on information. • More decisions based on figures due to regular monitoring. So as I am particularly interested in breeding rams where do I see this part of the industry going?. Until now UK breeders have made genetic gain by breed substitution rather than improvement with many leading ram breeders moving from Border Leicesters to Suffolks to Texels and now to Beltex over the last 50 years. This cannot continue not least because there are not many other breeds to move into! On many ram breeding farms scale or rather lack of it limits selection with all the main terminal sire flocks being on average no bigger than 35 ewes and Blue Faced Leicester flocks in the upper teens. Ram breeders have concentrated on feeding rather than breeding and on fashion whilst ignoring the commercial market. There are currently two main market drivers for ram breeders – the show ring and the commercial industry. On an individual basis ram breeders will either work harder for a falling market share or meet the demands of a more sophisticated customer. So in general terms I foresee the following taking place over the next 10 years • Ram breeders are the key to a profitable sheep industry so unless they change and concentrate on what affects their clients bottom line there will be no sheep industry for them to supply • Recording leading to year on year genetic improvement will be essential and will become the norm. • Ram production systems will mirror the management systems of ram breeders clients ie outdoor lambing and forage based feed regimes • Increased recording of functional traits will be aided by EID and management software • Increased use of gene markers for identifying health traits. • The advent of genomic selection will accelerate the rate of improvement • Greater emphasis on maternal as opposed to terminal attributes From a practical viewpoint I expect the following to happen • The number of ram breeders to fall significantly as rising costs make this “hobby” too expensive for many, whilst the new techniques used to identify rams with true commercial value will demand a commitment of time and money that are too great for most current breeders. • More large scale breeding companies or groups of breeders working together • Breed Societies will become marginalised and increasingly irrelevant UNLESS they actively promote change and bring commercial as opposed to social benefits to their members. • Increased use of crossbred ( composite ) rams. This will be partly due to the benefits of hybrid vigour but more importantly due to breeders introgressing attributes such as Myomax into breeds that do not normally carry them. SUFFTEX ( NZ TEXEL SIRE X NZ SUFFOLK DAM ) SHEARLING IN DEVON Writing this piece has been a salutary experience because it encapsulates the reasons why I decided to totally dump a lifetime’s work in breeding sheep and go back to the drawing board and start again. I am more convinced than ever of the need for change and that there is a willingness out there amongst commercial sheep farmers to embrace change. I clearly remember the conversation I had with GO in 2006 when I asked if he thought I could succeed commercially in the long run in running a functional as opposed to a show ring flock. His reply was “gee yes but it will take you 10 years and you don’t have that long” – I did not know and never dared ask whether at that time he meant the Suffolk breed or me but I suspect it was the latter. So we took the short cut of sourcing genetics well down that track making the dream achievable in my rather than my son’s lifetime One final point. In 2006 The Suffolk Society held a conference entitled “The Future Market” GO spoke at that conference. The opening speaker was Richard Sadler , the former head of meat dairy and poultry products at Waitrose. He opened his paper with these words “ The market place is full of opportunities – these opportunities will be harvested by the energetic, the imaginative, the persuasive, the creative and from the power of knowledge” Robyn Hulme Farming in family partnership since 1977. Chairman Suffolk Sheep Society 2002/4. Commercial Director of Suffolk Sheep Society 2004/8. Founding Board Member and then Chairman of Basco ( 2004/8). In 2007 founded EasyRams – the UK’s only breeders of 100% pure NZ Suffolks, Texels and Sufftexes. This is run with help of my wife Philippa and sons, Nick and James www.easyrams.co.uk is a partnership between Robyn and Murray Rohloff (@Global ovine ) --------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------- TFF News footnote: Murray Rohloff will be conducting another speaking tour in the UK this July. The programme proved very popular last year both from visitors’ feedback and from the notes published on TFF.