Genetics the way forward for sheep farmers

Genetic evaluations are a powerful tool for sheep farmers that enable them to make more informed breeding decisions and potentially increase productivity and profitability at farm level.

This is according to Teagasc’s Dr Noirin McHugh who outlined a report on Irish sheep breeding for the next five years at the Teagasc National Sheep Conference in Athlone this afternoon.

“A ram that has a genetic predisposition to lameness will continuous cause problems irrespective of treatment and more worryingly this animal has the potential to pass these unfavourable genes onto his progeny and thus the problem may persist or indeed worsen,” she explained in her presentation.

“However, the reverse is also true. For example, an animal that displays high growth rates or good conformation due to superior genetics will allow the favourable gene to filter down through your flock.”

According to McHugh, animal breeding is an underused tool in the Irish sheep industry and the gains that can be achieved through genetic selection are clearly evident within the dairy and beef industry.

“However, with the establishment of Sheep Ireland, along with new research from Teagasc and continued industry support, rapid improvements in productivity gains for important traits can be achieved.”

Sheep Ireland was established in 2008 to implement a dynamic genetic improvement breeding programme for the Irish sheep industry and to help increase flock productivity and profitability, the Teagasc expert explained.

The current genetic evaluations established by Sheep Ireland focuses on breeding profitable animals for commercial sheep production. The aim of the national breeding programme is to produce a low cost, easy-care sheep with good maternal characteristics, but yet will produce a quality lamb with high growth rates that will reach slaughter at a young age.

According to McHugh, genetic indexes, like all new technologies, will have to be demonstrated to deliver results on commercial farms before there will be large scale industry buy-in.

A new genetically elite flock is currently being established in Athenry to aid in evaluating the replacement index to ensure that animals deemed to be of high genetic merit for maternal traits are generating more profit at flock level. A further objective of this flock is to determine the suitability of New Zealand genetics for Irish grass-based production systems.

“To-date in sheep breeding it remains a relatively underutilised tool,” she said but stressed with the continual improvement of the genetic evaluations rapid gains can be achieved over a comparatively a short period of time for the Irish sheep sector.

She continued: “The future holds significant new possibilities for accelerated genetic improvement of the sheep population. This will require significant buy-in from breed societies and commercial farms.

“A significant amount of additional recording will be required. However, the pay back for this will be more productive flocks, with higher lamb growth rate, requiring lower levels of assistance at lambing, reduced lamb mortality and healthier lambs and ewes.”

In conclusion, she said it is incumbent on all the stakeholders to grasp the emerging opportunities and deliver for the industry. “This will improve the profitability and competitiveness of the sheep industry.”

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