The science of genomics is set to revolutionise the pace at which genetic improvement can be secured within the sheep sector.

This was the key take-home message delivered by Signet Breeding geneticist, Sam Boon, during his presentation to the recent EasyCare sheep open evening, hosted by Co. Antrim flock owner Campbell Tweed,

According to Boon, 2023 marks 50 years of the Agricultural and Horticultural Development Board (AHDB) Signet programme in the UK, a period of time that has seen a revolution in the science associated with the performance recording of sheep.

“The good news is that the rate of genetic gain within the sheep sector is now increasing at an exponential rate. And this is tremendous news for commercial flock owners,” he explained.

“It is now possible to breed for so many traits that are performance recorded.

“These include ewe longevity and the ability of a ewe to rear her lambs. Lamb growth rates remain a critically important trait to assess within all sheep enterprises.”

Sheep recording

Boon went on to point out that the numbers of sheep being recorded does matter. The larger the population of sheep under assessment, the faster rate of genetic gain that can be achieved.

“Where sheep are concerned, the generational interval is quite small. Hence the potential to drive genetic progress that much faster,” he commented.

In the case of Campbell Tweed’s Ballycoose flock, 4,000 lambs are recorded courtesy of the Signet programme on an annual basis.

Chatting at the EasyCare open evening (l-r): Richard Gorey and his daughter Amy, from Bennettsbridge in Co. Kilkenny with Mark Cloney, from Enniscorthy

Campbell also utilises the recording facilities available through Sheep Ireland.

Parasite resistance

Specifically, where parasite resistance to wormers within sheep flocks is concerned, Boon stressed the important role that genetic evaluations can play into the future.

But is the challenge one that centres solely on genetic resistance or should flock owners be breeding for flock resilience, where these matters are concerned?

Research has identified genetic differences between sheep in the strength of their acquired resistance to internal worm parasites.

If these differences can be identified by measurements in sheep, this trait can be incorporated into genetic evaluations and improved through selective breeding.

But selection for resistance alone comes at a cost, which can result in a reduction in overall performance.

In the opinion of Sam Boon, flock owners should select for resistance in conjunction with other performance traits, such as growth rate, carcase quality and maternal ability.

Carbon footprint

According to the Signet breeding specialist, ongoing genetic assessment will also allow farmers to identify sheep with a low carbon footprint.

July of this year saw the sheep sector in England awarded £2.9 million by the Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs (Defra) in order to specifically identify animals with a low carbon footprint.

Thomas Fulton, from Maghera, attended the EasyCare open evening with his sons Harry (left) and Luke

This work will constitute a three-year initiative. The project has been titled ‘Breed for CH4nge’.

It will measure methane emissions from a total of 13,500 sheep in 45 flocks, collect the necessary data and build and develop the tools required to genetically reduce methane emissions and improve the efficiency of the national flock.

The initiative will eventually demonstrate the impact of low-carbon sheep on whole farm carbon footprints.

Signet is one of a number of organisations delivering scientific expertise to the project.

“AHDB is delighted to share news of our involvement in ‘Breed for CH4nge’, an industry collaboration that will help to breed sheep with a naturally low carbon footprint,” Boon continued.

“There are a number of exciting elements to the project that align closely to AHDB’s research interests, and the genetic services delivered by Signet.

“The project will enhance our knowledge of genomics, breeding for parasite resistance and CT scanning, whilst assessing the benefits of using Portable Accumulation Chambers to predict methane emissions in grazing sheep.”

The Ballycoose flock

Ballycoose farm is home to 3,000 EasyCare ewes.

The entire operation is managed by three full-time staff. This, in itself, is a very powerful illustration of what ‘EasyCare’ sheep management is all about.

EasyCare open evning host Campbell Tweed (centre) with Signet Recording’s Sam Boon left and Sinclair Armstrong, from Tempo in Co. Fermanagh

Campbell took the decision of going down the self-shedding route after the wool price crash of 1999.

His initial investment centred on the acquisition of Wiltshire Horn rams, which he purchased in Northern Ireland. Up to that point, the Ballycoose flock comprised a mix of Newton Stewart Blackface and Colbred ewes.

Within a relatively short period of years, he fully committed to the EasyCare breed, the first of which he imported from Iolo Owen in Wales.

The EasyCare is a composite breed of sheep comprising mostly Welsh Mountain and Wiltshire Horn bloodlines. It was developed almost 60 years ago with breed members specifically selected for their wool-shedding and polled traits.

10 years prior to his switch to self-shedding sheep, Campbell had committed to complete animal recording within the flock.

“There is no splitting of the flock into groups. Each lamb is tagged at birth and, thereafter, electronically recorded on a regular basis throughout the period of its stay on the farm,” he explained.

“From a breeding point of view, we cull on a consistent basis.

“Obviously, we will assist any ewe that has a problem lambing. However, that female and her lambs will not be retained for further breeding purposes. Nor will we sell these animals on to other breeders; they are all sent for slaughter at the appropriate time.

“We take a similar approach, where lameness is concerned. Obviously, any animal can succumb to a problem of this kind. However, if the issue arises again, after the initial treatment, it will not be retained for breeding.”

EasyCare sheep

Campbell believes that EasyCare sheep have a key role to play on sheep farms of all types.

“They are particularly suited to flock owners who work from 9:00a.m to 5:00p.m between Monday and Friday. To a large extent, the sheep can manage themselves,” Tweed said.

A group of EasyCare ewes

Campbell is currently selling both breeding EasyCare ewes and lambs to flock owners throughout Ireland and the UK.

“We are offering fully recorded stock that can add significantly to any sheep enterprise. Demand for EasyCare bloodlines is on the up and this trend shows no sign of diminishing,” he said.

He is quick to confirm that the self-shedding ability of the breed is a big selling point.

“Back when Blackface sheep were our main focus, we would have sold up to 7t of wool on an annual basis,” Campbell further explained.

“Last year that figure dropped to around 600kg.”

On the back of the commitment to comprehensive sheep recording, demand for Ballycoose bloodlines is increasing on an international basis.

In 2020 EasyCare rams were selected by Shrewsbury based Farmgene Ltd. from the Ballycoose flock.

Progeny from this selection were sold very successfully in two sales in New Zealand earlier this year.