Finishing the Information Nucleus Program
This is the flagship CRC program that has been underway since early 2007. Each year approximately 100 young rams have been selected by the CRC’s genetics team on the basis of high levels of performance in at least one trait, a spread over a range of bloodlines/genotypes. Using AI, these rams were joined to 5000 ewes located at 8 sites throughout Australia. The progeny have been thoroughly measured for a comprehensive range of traits as well as ‘genotyping’ using a 50K SNP chip. The results have contributed to better understanding of genetic parameters, definition of new traits and utilisation of genomic information in predicting breeding values.
The last crop of lambs in this five-year program were born in 2011. Measurements of the progeny has continued to 2015 with a focus on reproductive performance and adult wool production. Many ram breeders have sold semen into the program at the discounted rate of $10/dose, and this contribution has been invaluable.
The CRC collaborated with MLA and AWI on this project which aimed to genotype young rams born in 2011 and use the results to assist with selection of sires for the 2012 breeding season. Genomics makes a particularly valuable contribution to selection of young rams for traits that are difficult to measure or only measurable later on in life. Data for the updated prediction of genomic breeding values largely came from the Information Nucleus program.
Ram breeders were invited to nominate up to 20 rams, for Merinos and 10 for other breeds, with a target for the whole project of 1,000 rams. This was an open call for all members of MERINOSELECT and LAMBPLAN. The cost of genotyping was subsidised with breeders paying $50/ram. Results have already been returned to breeders. These results generated a lot of interest as they provided research breeding values for a wide range of traits considered to be very useful in ram selection decisions. There are predictions for new traits such as horn-poll, intramuscular fat and dressing percent.
Getting sufficient data on reproductive performance (number of lambs weaned - NLW) is a slow business. To try to speed up collection of data from which to develop genomic predictions for NLW, a number of ram breeders were approached by Sheep Genetics with a request to collect blood samples from rams with accurate ASBVs for NLW. These samples were used to genotype the rams using the 50K SNP chip and the data included in future analyses in combination with the Information Nucleus data. There has been no cost to breeders in having these sires genotyped and Sheep Genetics has been able to provide results to these breeders on the research breeding values outlined above for the Pilot Project.
Sheep CRC and MLA worked together to develop a SNP-based DNA parentage test that included prediction of horn-poll and pigmentation. A number of ram breeders with good parentage data collected through mothering up, pedigree matchmaker or other DNA tests were asked to collect blood samples from progeny and parents to help validate an experimental version of the new test.
As more data is collected from all sources the genomic prediction of breeding values becomes more accurate and covers a wider range of traits. Whenever the predictive algorithms are updated then the results can be distributed for all rams that have been genotyped with the 50K SNP chip. A good example was the release in November 2011 of genomic breeding values for horn-poll as part of the Genomic Pilot Project II. The availability of this new information meant that results for rams in the entire Information Nucleus program, Pilot Project I and a wide range of industry sires received the update.
The original Information Nucleus program, with its final lambing in 2011, established the value of the novel design in generating genetic and genomic information. The results have exceeded expectations. It is now clear that genomic technologies will deliver significant benefits to the sheep industry. It is also clear that the value of genomic predictions needs to be improved, and maintained, via an on-going Information Nucleus program. This is referred to as the post-CRC Information Nucleus program or Information Nucleus II (IN2). As for the original Information Nucleus program, young rams have been selected for excellence and diversity with purchase of semen from cooperating breeders ($10/dose). While the focus of genotyping will be on the major breeds there will be inclusion of minor breeds in order to benchmark key difficult to measure phenotypic characteristics such as meat quality.
As implied by the title, the post-CRC Information Nucleus is beyond the scope of the CRC and will be largely funded by industry. Preparation of the ewes and the AI program, which commenced during 2012, is funded by MLA and AMPC. Decisions on longer term funding of the program will be made in the future.