The mixing bowl of sheep genetics - Elders Rural Services

The mixing bowl of sheep genetics

The best ingredients don’t translate to the best dish without input from the best chef.

The same is true when it comes to choosing genetics to improve or start a flock. An increase Australia-wide in recorded breeding values has undoubtedly made the job of selecting a purpose bred animal easier, however, it’s not a case of picking the best of everything and hoping to achieve the best outcome on any given property.

Elders Goulburn district wool manager, Craig Pearsall helps explain the process by drawing on his 40 years’ experience, working closely with Merino’s on the south west slopes of the Southern Tablelands in New South Wales.

“The Merino has come a long way in the last 40 years and that’s a credit to our stud breeders. We can now measure traits which we can’t see or touch. Increasing our ability to accurately measure and manage the performance of a breeding program,” he says.

Spoilt for choice

Gone are the days of judging a ram by its appearance alone. Australian Sheep Breeding Values (ASBVs) provide buyers with data to tailor animals to the specific goals and objectives of a breeding program.

ASBVs are available for many different traits including:

  • growth traits
  • carcass and eating quality traits
  • wool traits
  • reproduction traits
  • health traits.

On top of individual ASBVs, buyers can view combined indexes which weight certain traits and return a single number which clearly ranks animals. In theory, a super sheep exists, scoring the highest possible marks for every trait. Only its not that simple, as Craig explains.

“It doesn’t pay to get greedy when it comes to breeding values,” says Craig.

“Going after every metric at the same time overlooks the key breeding objectives of the flock and could result in an animal that isn’t fit for purpose. Selecting two or three traits to implement into a flock before re-evaluating the flock’s objectives is good practice.

Getting the balance right is the trick, if you chase wool traits you could impact fertility or if you chase growth traits you could impact wool cut.”

Assessing animals based on appearance still forms part of the equation and that’s a point Craig makes when considering the complete process.

“A good foundation to build upon is vital to the success of the flock, animals need to have good structure. Only a visual assessment can ensure the animal stands square, has no dip in the back, stands on their toes and follows through from the hips to shoulders.”

If traits are the ingredients, nutrition is the chef

Selecting the right genetics is only part of the equation, the other part is management.

“The biggest impact to production is nutrition. You can buy the best genetics but if you manage them poorly then your production won’t reflect your genetic inputs. The condition score of an animal will have an impact on the profit drivers of the flock,” says Craig.

“In-house management of your stock, in my mind, is the most important thing to get right. For example, if ewe lambs don’t meet certain growth weights for age the progeny just won’t produce to their full genetic potential.”

Craig’s advice for choosing the right genetics and ongoing flock management:

  1. Develop a goal/objective for the flock, think about specific profit drivers and create a breeding plan that will achieve these goals.
  2. Get the foundation right, it’s not just about breeding values alone, visualize the structure of the animals and take into consideration the environment they’ll be living in.
  3. Select two or three traits which will help you achieve your goal for the flock and perfect these traits before moving onto others.
  4. Measure to manage. This goes for breeding values but also nutritional management. Set up an in-house management system to identify and eliminate underperforming animals.

For more information on flock genetics get in contact with your local District Wool Manager.

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