Efficient lamb production: ‘Genomics isn’t just for pedigree breeders’

Genetic analysis could become a major selling point for commercial breeders too, farmers at the Northern Ireland sheep conference were told.

The Efficient Lamb Production Conference took place at Greenmount College on Wednesday.

Noirin McHugh,Teagasc sheep and beef geneticist based in Moorepark, Co. Cork explained that while genomics had already gathered traction with pedigree breeders in the south; there are benefits to commercial breeders too.

Genomics sequence the animal’s DNA, giving breeders information about its genetic predisposition towards certain traits such as its likeliness to have extra lambs or to develop Scrapie  – a fatal, degenerative disease that affects the nervous systems of sheep and goats.

McHugh said: “The other interesting things that genomic evaluation can do is breed determination and inbreeding. Inbreeding is an issue to some of the smaller breeding populations.”

Accurate parentage

“DNA level inbreeding is much more accurate than parentage level inbreeding because, if you know very little of the family tree, inbreeding might not look like a problem. But at genomic level you can tell straight away how much of the DNA matches between animals.

Noirin McHugh,Teagasc  speaking at the Efficient Lamb Production conference

“The biggest benefit I see is genomic evaluation. At the minute we are working on how to increase the accuracy in this for different traits.

“We are up at about 60% accuracy straight away. So already it’s giving farmers a lot more information and a lot more confidence in the star ratings system we are producing for these animals.”

Buying rams

Sheep genomics have been based on the same system already frequently used by dairy breeders to select breeding sires; it’s thought it could add value to high-performing rams.

The idea is that evaluation would allow farmers to make an informed decision on which ram to purchase driving more efficient lamb production.

In the South this is available at a subsidised rate, and was previously available free of charge.

The Irish government set aside around €500,000 (£440,000) for a sheep genomics programme, Sheep Ireland.

As part of the Sheep Technology Adoption Programme (STAP) commercial farmers were required to buy a high index ram which encouraged more breeders to join the project.

Eileen McCloskey

Information for efficiency

Eileen McCloskey of CAFRE added that other new technologies could also help the efficiency of breeding units.

McCloskey said information could help farmers improve lambing percentage, growth rates and grassland management as well as also being able to pick out their best and worst performing ewes.

She said: “If you go to a restaurant owner and ask how much meat they will order, they don’t just do it on a whim – they go back and look at how much they sold last year and what sold well compared to the year before. They’ll know their business inside out – they’ll know their drivers of production.

“But if I go to a sheep farmer and ask them similar things about their system’s inputs there will be a lot less information.

“Information is going to drive on your business. The technology is available to the sheep industry but we just have to make use of it.”