On the 5th of September, the Williams family welcome us on farm to view the flock and the rams before the Prohill sale on the 21st of September, where we will get the opportunity to view the flock at home and learn morea bout Edd’s farm system. 

The opportunity to boost sheep profit and performance in Welsh hill flocks by recording is being proven within a Powys flock.

Figures from the ‘Wenallt’ flock at Upper Wenallt, Talybont-on-Usk, show the value of genetic gains driven through estimated breeding values (EBVs).

Since 2016, there has been a 3.2kg increase in eight-week-old lamb weights, a 2.9mm increase in muscle depth at scanning and a 5.9kg increase in scanning weights.

The pure-bred Welsh Mountain flock is largely made up of ewes with an EBV in the top 25% for their breed on performance.

It all started in 2010 when the Williams family started performance recording, recognising it as an important tool for genetic progress.

“We could see it was the way forward,’’ recalls Edward, who farms with his parents, Glyn and Lynne.

He joined them in the business in 2005 after graduating from Harper Adams University.

EBVs, which indicate exactly where an animal ranks within the breed for specific traits of economic importance, plays an important role in the flock’s profitability.

Edward says the figures allow him to make better breeding decisions, both within his own flock and when breeding rams for his commercial and pedigree customers.

“If we wanted to get to the very top I didn’t want to have to pump an animal with feed, I decided that performance recording was a more genuine way to achieve that and commercially the most viable, and that probably is the case.

“Although our rams are not making thousands and thousands like some do in the traditional sales we have a solid average and with the fixed pricing structure we’re not selling any rams below the cost of production.’’

All 11 Welsh rams retained to sell as breeding stock in 2023 are in the top 10% of the breed and all are positive for their maternal ability and muscle and fat depth.

Edward says these are the three traits the business has always concentrated on. “I am very pleased that all the replacements we have got to sell are positive on these very important traits.’’

Some sales are directly from the farm but the majority are through the annual Prohill sale at Aberystwyth.

The 10 tups the Williams’ sold last year averaged just over £950 a head.

Upper Wenallt, which covers 220 acres, rises from 750 feet to 1,160 feet above Talybont-on-Usk.

Grazed grass plays an important part in the system with root crops helping to fill the winter feed gap – 12 acres of swedes are grown annually for pregnant ewes and single rearing ewes after lambing.

There are 370 ewes in total, including 80 pedigree Black Welsh Mountains.

One hundred Welsh ewes are recorded with great importance placed on maternal ability and eight-week growth rate; care is taken not to increase mature ewe size.

Data accuracy in the flock is very high because it has been recorded for 13 years.

“We can look back six generations, in some probably more because we bought rams that had been recording for six years before us. There is quite a depth of breeding and reliability in there now,’’ says Edward.

When he receives his figures from Signet, the first piece of data he reviews is the overall index.

This is important as the index is what he sells his rams on. “In terms of individual attributes, the maternal ability and milkiness of ewes is vital, so I look to eight-week weight,’’ he explains.

“It is all very well to have a lamb that can grow ‘X’ kilogrammes more than the one standing by its side but if the mother is not milky and maternal enough to allow it to reach its potential then it never will. In my opinion, if a lamb has a good start to life it never looks back.’’

Recording has lifted performance across the whole flock as high index rams are used on the crossbred ewes, taking out the bottom performers.

“We no longer have poor performing ewes that consistently produce poor lambs, the recording system flags those ewes very quickly,’’ says Edward.

Long gone are the days of “scraggly little lambs’’.

The rolling averages show a significant increase in the weight of both single and twin-reared lambs – the eight-week weights for single-producing ewes average 22.8kg and total lamb weight produced for ewes rearing twins 35.9kg/ewe.

Scan weight output per ewe taken at 20 weeks averages 33.6kg for singles and 58.9kg for twins, from ewes with a 48kg mature weight.

Single ewes are weaning 70% of their mature bodyweight and twins 122% without creep and only minimal concentrates for twin bearing ewes.

Early finishing is where the flock has seen gains. In recent years Edward has been concentrating on muscle depth and positive fat depth.

For him, the speed at which the lambs leave the farm is important, with good fat cover key to that.

“It is no good to me having a 40kg lamb that is not fit to go to slaughter and needs to be fed on concentrates for a month to finish, I prefer a 36kg lamb that is fit and ready to go to free up grazing for stock left on farm,’’ Edward insists.

He is very keen to preserve type and correctness, stressing the importance of liking the look of the females retained as flock replacements.

“Short, broad teeth is something we’re very hot on as well because grazing ewes on roots every winter soon whittles out the ones with poor teeth.’’

Breeding has kept sheep low to the ground. “We want to breed lambs with wide shoulders that will carry meat, an animal that is thick, squat, a proper hill type that is easy finishing and cheap to keep. Performance recording greatly aids this,’’ says Edward.

The flock lambs over four weeks from the end of February.

Only the twin-bearing ewes, which are housed three weeks before lambing, receive concentrates, initially 120g of an 18% protein cake and increasing to 250g.

Lambs from the crossbreds are sold from the end of May at Talybont-on-Usk or Raglan livestock markets at 30-36kg liveweight.

Progeny from the Welsh ewes are not sold until mid-September to enable all the lambs to be scanned for muscle and backfat at the end of August.

In 2020 the Williams’ established a pure flock of Charmoise Hill ewes with foundation stock sourced from Warwickshire breeder David Eglin, who performance records 300 ewes.

They now have 40 and are also recording these.

They are applying to join Tier 2 new Welsh Sheep Genetics Programme with that flock.

With a mature size very similar to the Welsh, Edward saw benefits in introducing Charmoise genetics to the crossbreds.

“The Charmoise is a very useful little sheep, not quite a hill sheep in the same regard as the Welsh Mountain but with a similar mature size which suits our farm and improved conformation.’’

Five Charmoise yearling tups have been retained to sell as breeding stock this year.

The breed is recognised as one with good commercial value going forward.

“A lot of farmers use them on ewe lambs but there is big merit in using them on yearlings too, to give the yearling an easy lambing and rearing that doesn’t draw too hard on her,’’ says Edward.

“The lambs are a small, quick growing and shapey and are sprightly and up and sucking quickly at birth.’’