Sheep breeding values the hot topic at industry field days

Melissa WilliamsCountryman

At least 25 per cent of Merino rams have them, about 67 per cent of terminal sire rams have them, around 50 per cent of maternal and dual-purpose rams have them and in New Zealand, about 80 per cent of breeders supply them on their rams.

They are sheep breeding values and they are creating much debate across WA as the sheep sector moves into its annual round of Merino and prime lamb field days and major stud sales.

Australian Sheep Breeding Values (ASBVs) are generated for animals in the national Sheep Genetics databases MerinoSelect and LambPlan and are greatly enhanced by data from the Sheep CRC's Information Nucleus Flock (INF), because it strengthens across flock and across breed connections and picks up traits that are not routinely collected.

ASBVs for stud sires are calculated using farm-generated data submitted to MerinoSelect and LambPlan, which combine to a total of more than six million sheep and are expanding by about 350,000 animals a year.

This means each Merino or meat breed ram evaluated by either system is compared directly with about 1.4 million other sheep.

Sheep Genetics manager Sam Gill said comparing sheep based on their ASBVs, via the LambPlan or MerinoSelect databases, was the most accurate genetic measuring tool currently available in this country to identify breeding stock to achieve flock progress.

He said breeding sheep, by nature, was going to be variable but ASBVs took into account raw measurements and objectively measured progeny data to ensure the most repeatable results possible - independent of environmental and feeding factors.

"We know that for breeders, proof of profit for using ASBV information is a big issue and we are currently working on a project comparing about 50 sheep genetics demonstration trials during the past 20 years that shows how the technology works and its value to commercial producers," he said.

"This includes producer demonstration sites and scientific, stud, research station and breed trials."

Meat and Livestock Australia (MLA) research and development (R&D) strategy and evaluation manager Robert Banks said that at least 25 per cent of Merino rams used by industry were being evaluated through the MerinoSelect system, although this estimate was conservative because it was difficult to gauge the total number of flock rams used that had MerinoSelect ASBVs. The number of Merino rams could be closer to 50 per cent.

He said about 65 per cent of Merino semen used for artificial insemination programs to breed more stud and flock rams came from flocks using MerinoSelect.

Dr Banks said recent analysis showed the average annual rate of genetic progress in flocks using MerinoSelect was worth about an additional $1.25 per ewe joined per year.

He said this was almost 20 per cent of the $6.40/ewe average annual profit per year for the period 1998-2011 for Merino flocks in the Holmes-Sackett Benchmarking analysis.

"And genetic progress is cumulative, which means that if we start with $0 as a base year, added profit due to genetic improvement is $1.25/ewe in year one, $2.50/ewe in year two, $3.75/ewe in year three, $5/ewe in year four, $6.25/ewe in year five and so on," he said.

"In simple terms, the genetic progress being achieved by breeders who use MerinoSelect is growing the profitability of Merino commercial flocks by 20 per cent per year.

"This means flocks buying rams from typical MerinoSelect clients will double their average profit in just over five years, compared to the 1998-2011 average. And this is reflected in the fact that studs using MerinoSelect consistently get very high clearance rates at ram sales and seem to be holding or increasing their numbers."

It is estimated that if WA flocks can lift average lamb marking rates from a 20-year static level of about 77 per cent to 90 per cent using genetic and management advances, producers would reap about $52 per extra lamb on the ground at average stocking rates and current meat prices - this would be worth about $64 million to the local sheep sector.

In New Zealand, high adoption of sheep breeding values and genetics innovations since the mid-1980s has been attributed to that nation increasing its flock average adult ewe lamb marking rates to 130 per cent.

A decision made by the Australian Wool Innovation (AWI) board in December last year to block $4.8 million funding (over nine years) into continued sheep industry genetic research through the INF has sparked calls recently from wool producers that traditionalists in the sector are hampering such Merino genetic advancements in Australia.

The INF will continue to receive funding from MLA - $2.2 million in the next two years - and it is understood the Australian Wool Testing Authority will also inject some capital to the project.

Dr Banks said the AWI decision meant, in the short term, other sources of funding would need to be found to continue building data on wool traits.

He said in the longer term, funds would determine the scale of the project and in broad terms - the bigger the scale of the project, the better.

The AWI board was split in its decision not to fund the next round of the Sheep CRC genomics program, which was focusing on developing genotyping and DNA sequencing - or snip (SNP) - tests using the INF and chairman Wal Merriman, of Merryville Merino stud in Yass, NSW, had the deciding vote.

AWI chief executive Stuart McCullough said the organisation was committed to meaningful and relevant genetic and genomic research.

He said in the past decade AWI had spent $26.6 million on genetic and genomic research, or about 15 per cent of its total on-farm R&D budget.

These wool producer levies have helped fund the development of a wide range of research genetic markers, based on DNA testing, through the INF to allow breeders to identify particular characteristics of sheep without the extended time and cost of progeny testing or maintaining a big database of animals until the desired trait is expressed, measured and then compared.

This technology has potential to increase the accuracy of current ASBVs for a range of traits already identified and measured, such as fibre diameter, eye muscle depth and reproductive performance, and help to develop new ASBVs based on phenotypic measures.

Types of Merino traits researchers hoped to be able to identify using new DNA testing in the INF included predictable next-to-skin comfort, dye-ability, parasite resistance and better mothering ability.

Mr McCullough claimed only up to 15 per cent of active Merino studs routinely adopted the use of ASBVs and to attract extra investment in this area, the AWI board required greater commercial uptake of this technology, improved co-ordination of all genetic selection tools and a clear plan for achieving this.

The Stud Merino Breeders Association of WA (SMBAWA) has said there was a strong belief among its committee members that the future of science in genomics and genetics would assist all stud breeders in breeding better animals in the future.

It has called for the Sheep CRC's cost structure of the INF project to be revised, possibly by reducing ewe numbers, and a new reduced funding proposal submitted to AWI for its review.

WAFarmers wool section president Ed Rogister said the INF held valuable data for the Merino flock in Australia and AWI should not drop its funding of the program, which represented a small drop in its bucket of total R&D funds.

The Pastoralists and Graziers Association (PGA) has also reiterated its support for a science-based approach to genetic advancement of the Merino flock in Australia.

PGA livestock committee chairman Digby Stretch said the organisation was disappointed with AWI's decision to scale back funding of genetics R&D.

He said every other industry used science and R&D to make progress and he was concerned about the traditionalism coming out of the AWI board.

Mr Stretch said he recognised it would be hard for AWI to measure uptake of R&D and genetics work, but it should recognise that every sheep producer in Australia was making decisions based on science.

"They may not be using ASBVs, MerinoSelect or LambPlan formally, but they are taking note of the theories and in their own formulations are determining heritability of traits like skin wrinkle, fibre diameter and worm resistance," he said.

"The AWI board must have a vision to look ahead and support science that will be adopted due to this trickle down affect from the top of the breeding chain."

Mr Stretch said wool producers who were dissatisfied with AWI's performance could directly campaign the board - which seemed to be occurring with the INF issue - vote to withhold funding to the organisation through the next WoolPoll or change the board members when elections came up.

Voting in the up-coming WoolPoll 2012 opens on September 21 and PGA and WAFarmers are yet to make their recommendations to members about whether to support a zero, one, 2.5 or 3 per cent rate on the sale of greasy wool for AWI industry research, development and marketing activities.

Mr Rogister said discussions about the WoolPoll levy rate and AWI's INF funding decisions would be high on the agenda at the September meeting of WoolProducers Australia.

In simple terms, the genetic progress being achieved by breeders who use MerinoSelect is growing the profitability of Merino commercial flocks by 20 per cent per year. Robert Banks

The AWI board must have a vision to look ahead and support science that will be adopted due to this trickle down affect from the top of the breeding chain. Digby Stretch

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