OVER THE past 50 years, performance recording in cattle has progressed from being ridiculed to a position where data on individual animals in a pedigree catalogue is to be expected.

Almost the opposite has happened with sheep. When I started farming, only one new breed of cattle, the Luing, had appeared. In the same period we saw the arrival of 'The Improver', the Colbred, the British Milksheep, the Cobb and the Meatlinc.

While the pedigree cattle industry still held the view that we were 'The stock farm of the world', deep thinkers like Brian Cadzow, Oscar Coburn, Lawrence Alderson and Henry Fell, were developing their new sheep breeds based on performance. These breeds were mostly permutations of the Poll Dorset, Westfalian Milksheep, the Ile De France and the prolific but poorly made Finnish Landrace.

But, because they looked very different to popular breeds at the time they were largely rejected by mainstream breeders.

My father tried an Improver in 1968, which was targeted as a maternal alternative to the Leicester. Later, I used the Colbred with great success and also a British Milksheep which looked similar.

The Colbred, apart from a pink nose, wasn’t a bad looking sheep. The wedders sold well in the deadweight market but not, due to their different appearance, when sold store. The ewe lambs were marvellous mothers when crossed with a Suffolk.

As far as I am aware the Cobb, which was bred by the Cobb Poultry Breeding Company, no longer exists. The Meatlinc had some local enthusiasts but remained well behind the Suffolk and Texel in popularity. The reality is that in the 20th century, the very conservative sheep industry wasn’t ready for anything that looked so different.

Since the millennium, things have started to change but movement has been slow. New composites and breeds from NZ, in particular, have been introduced and, unlike those 50 years before, are being increasingly accepted.

Electronic identification, computerisation and sophisticated instruments such as ultrasonic and CT scanners, which measure the internal make up of lambs when they are still alive, are now having a significant impact.

In the recent Sheep Breeders Round Table Podcast on 'Terminal ram breeding', Dr Nicola Lambe gave an update on CT scanning and Suffolk breeders, Irene Fowlie and Scott Brown, talked about their own breeding and marketing programmes and their experiences with CT scanning.

In their vision and practise, both Irene and Scott operated in a similar way to ourselves. Like them, we had CT scanned our best ram lambs based on appearance, weight at weaning and their ultrasonic scan for some years.

Ultrasonic scanning to estimate the internal make up of a lamb while it is alive is quick and cheap and is generally used over the entire lamb crop. CT scanning is slow and expensive. It requires large and more sophisticated instruments, so economics dictate that is used on only the top 10 to 20% of ram lambs.

It moves accuracy levels over ultrasonic scanning from 60% to more 90%. Flocks using CT scanning are achieving a 7-20% increase in genetic gain and a 5-13% improvement in their carcase EBVs.

As we are already familiar at home with CT scanning in assessing muscularity and fat cover, I was particularly interested in Dr Lambe’s description of future developments as a lambing case predictor, assessor of intramuscular fat and as a tool in reducing methane.

Comparing CT scans with data submitted in the lambing field it was obvious that shoulder and hip width were directly related to lambing difficulty. Measurement of angle and internal dimensions of the pelvis, which is possible with the CT scanner, can identify animals which are liable to cause future birthing problems.

Although these revelations may seem obvious, we now have a tool to manage bad lambers’ influence on future generations. I also learnt that a lamb can have 19, 20 or 21 vertebrae – a lamb with 21 gives the butcher an extra crown roast worth £9.10.

An abiding memory of going as a teenager with my father to Glendevon to select an Improver ram related to a time before cheap air travel when few had ever been abroad. I mentioned to my dad, possibly with a hint of envy, that Brian Cadzow was going to some far-off land to advise their government on sheep production.

He replied that those sorts of exciting things tended to fall into the laps of such pioneers. I little realised at the time how commonplace and cheap foreign travel would become, and how many trips I would make in the future in pursuit of improved genetics.

Most of the places I went to were off the tourist trail. For all that the Pampas, the endless Prairie and the high Veldt, where the air is so clear that smoke from a small fire could be seen 20 miles away, had their own beauty.

There were a few scary moments. The vastness of rural Australia I found intimidating.

On three occasions, out of range of satnavs and mobiles, I got completely lost. On another occasion when being driven round a ranch in the Nebraska Sandhills we came on a Chianina bull in the wrong paddock. “I’ll drive up and open the gate if you walk him up the fence, John,” the rancher said.

I was in the open prairie, felt very exposed and approached the huge beast a trifle gingerly. He solved the problem himself by jumping back over the fence like a steeplechaser.

The most frightening experience of all was in a safari park in South Africa. As that country had run out of elephants some had been brought in from Zambia and were still very unsettled. One of our convoy of Land Cruisers got too near and a huge bull tusker, trunk raised, huge ears flapping and trumpeting aggression, charged to within a few feet.

Eventually after a seemingly endless impasse, he wheeled and returned to the herd. That evening we were shown a video of the incident. We were thankful that videos don’t record smell!