Breeding a brighter future

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Jenne BrammerThe West Australian
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China's surge in agricultural development has created a niche opportunity for Kojonup's Simon and Rebecca Bell to help Australian sheep studs export their genetics.

The Bells, both veterinarians, run the sheep and horse breeding operation Breedtech, which offers laparoscopic artificial insemination and a fresh and frozen embryo transfer service, as well as semen freezing. Simon mostly concentrates on sheep breeding, while Rebecca's focus is horse genetics.

In late 2013, Breedtech obtained accreditation to supply frozen sheep embryos to China.

The accreditation involved an in-depth approval process between China and the former Australian Quarantine Inspection Service (now absorbed into the Department of Agriculture), and cost about $25,000.

The permit means Breedtech is licensed to produce frozen embryos in WA that can be sold to China.

Simon stressed they do not sell embryos directly. Rather, they are licensed to provide a service to Australian studs that have Chinese clients who are looking to build up or enhance their breeding stock.

Most of this work for the Chinese market currently involves the newer Australian Whites and Dorper breeds, which are in high demand in China.

Simon said the biggest challenge on the export side of the business was dealing with various government requirements, which was a costly venture as quarantine charges and auditing were all achieved at full cost recovery.

"Because of our location in Kojonup we have to pay for travel, et cetera, at a high rate. The China accreditation was expensive, as we had to upgrade our facility to meet their strict guidelines and pay for a delegation to come out and inspect our facility," he said.

"The Government is doing what it can to make the process straightforward, but there doesn't seem to be a lot of drive to capitalise on what could otherwise be a huge opportunity."

Simon said WA had one of the lowest numbers of transmissible stock diseases in the world.

"We should be promoting this region as a safe place from which to import genetics," he said.

Aside from the frozen embryo export market, the other facet of Breedtech's business is servicing local studs, where most demand is for fresh embryo transfers.

"Within the local market there are two main types of client - those wanting to increase selection pressure, and those wishing to quickly multiply their stock," Simon said.

"First we have the stud client, who has identified the elite sheep in their business, so uses the service to maximise the rates of genetic gain.

"By using embryo transfers, the stud can put more selection pressure on the genetics within the flock by confining breeding to the very top ewes (as well as rams)."

The second source of demand comes from those seeking to multiply flocks rapidly, which predominantly relates to the newly-introduced breeds.

"For instance, when the Awassi sheep first reached Australia, there was a desire to quickly increase numbers," Simon said.

Like the Chinese market, Dorpers and Australian Whites are current examples of where there is strong demand to multiply quickly.

The Breedtech operation uses a series of hormone-based injections that cause the ewe to create multiple viable eggs, which are then fertilised via AI. Called in-vivo fertilisation, the aim is to achieve multiple embryos which are then flushed and transferred into recipient ewes such as Merinos.

"With sheep we can flush every six weeks," Simon said. "However, we can typically operate up to four times within a season.

"There are a lot of variables such as age of sheep, breed and season, but generally expect about eight to 10 viable or transferable embryos per cycle.

"Of the embryos transferred into the recipient ewes, 60 to 80 per cent will result in a pregnancy. This can result in many lambs out of each donor ewe per year.

"For example, instead of AI-ing 200 ewes, you could get the same number of lambs out of your top 20 ewes in the stud flock with just one flush. Therefore, you have 10 times the selection pressure on your ewe flock."

Breedtech was started by the Bells in 1998. Simon has been working in the sheep industry since 1992 when he graduated from university and Rebecca since 2001.

The main change in this field witnessed by Simon over that time includes a big switch from laparoscopic artificial insemination toward embryo transfer.

"When I first came into the industry, my primary job was laparoscopic AI, mainly working with Merinos," he said.

"I have seen a big shift toward embryo transfer as people become more comfortable with the technology. Meat breeds are now the bulk of our work. The stud stock breeders of meat sheep have been quick to realise the advantages of using embryo transfer along with a breeding system to accelerate their genetic gain. There are fewer traits to measure resulting in more pressure being put on the main profit driving traits.

"ET is a little more expensive, but as you are able to place a lot more selection pressure within your breeding program, the return on capital is much higher than AI. There is research which shows that if the correct animals are selected, you can increase your rate of genetic gain by up to 40 per cent."

Simon said in terms of breeds, much of their sheep work for both the Chinese and domestic market over the past year has been focussed on Australian Whites. The Bells care for some of these sheep - owned by Eastern States studmaster Graham Gilmore - on their Kojonup property.

"We don't have a stud ourselves as it's best to keep myself at arm's length and not compete with our clients," Simon said.

"So I flush them for Graham Gilmore, who has clients in China wanting frozen embryos. Since then he's also gained some local clients in WA."

Within the local market there are two main types of client - those wanting to increase selection pressure, and those wishing to quickly multiply their stock. Dr Simon Bell

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