New research funded by EBLEX into the genetics of ewe longevity could benefit the sheep industry on the back of improved culling rates and improved lifetime productivity.

Carried out through Scotland’s Rural College (SRUC), the one-year sheep research project aims to find the best way to include the productive lifespan of sheep in breeding evaluations in the UK.

The average replacement rate within the UK flock is 20-25% per year and is affected by many factors, including culling policies on farm and death rates. The economic value of improving flock longevity estimated to be £1-£1.50 per ewe per annum.

“Improving productive lifespan in our sheep flock increases maternal efficiency and reduces greenhouse gas emissions as fewer replacement ewe lambs are required,” explained SRUC Livestock Geneticist Dr Joanne Conington,

Dr Conington, who is leading the research, highlighted that improving aspects of maternal performance is the key to reducing wastage and flock inefficiencies. “By identifying and avoiding the use of under-performing families and strains of sheep, and by highlighting good ‘maternal’ rams for breeding, farmers can better select their breeding stock with the additional breeding tools that it is hoped this project will deliver.”

The research will outline longevity and then determine if it is possible to use existing performance recording datasets to gather information about it. The innovative approach will use the last known lambing event of a ewe to infer information about productive lifespan from national data sets. This methodology is currently being used by Signet to performance record some beef breeds to produce a Lifespan Estimated Breeding Value (EBV).

EBLEX Breeding Specialist Sam Boon is optimistic about the potential applications for this research.

“In recent years there has been a massive increase in interest in the recording of maternal breeds and the purchase of Signet recorded rams to breed female replacements. These tools will build on this interest and place greater focus on the efficiency of performance within our sheep flocks,” he said.

EBLEX is the organisation charged with the responsibility of enhancing the profitability and sustainability of the English beef and lamb sector. It is funded courtesy of a producer levy.