Close analysis of objective data and a commitment to buying rams in well-matched teams is driving significant and consistent improvement across the flock of Central West NSW producer Anthony Drenkhahn.
Mr Drenkhahn has enjoyed average lambing rates of 112 per cent and up to 126pc from his 2000-ewe Merino flock, which he puts down to the selection accuracy provided by Australian Sheep Breeding Values (ASBVs).
And he can see more rapid gains and major labour savings on the way as a result of using DNA testing.
"Our biggest driver of money now is wool and surplus sheep sales," Mr Drenkhahn said. "Being involved in a DNA testing program has really made a difference to the business, particularly on the wool side of things – it has been a huge benefit to us.
"Our turnover is fairly good too as we can sell our Merino wethers as prime lambs because they grow so quickly now."
Mr Drenkhahn runs a 3000-hectare mixed farming operation at Trundle, of which about one-third of the operation is devoted to dryland cereal production and the remainder to his self-replacing Merino flock.
He is also a member of the Centre Plus group of stud Merino breeders, a group he joined after witnessing the selection accuracy provided by ASBVs when working as a young shearer on the property of the Mortimer family.
"I like the measurement side of things – you know everything is accurate when you measure everything," he said.
"It’s like when you buy a kilo of sugar – you know what you’re getting, and it’s the same when you’re buying rams from a measured flock.
"You name it. You can just about measure anything now, but especially the traits that make the money – body weights, fleece weights, growth rates, micron – and if you measure it you can then select to improve it."
The key to selecting the right rams to join to his flock was to closely study ASBVs the night before visually inspecting the offering and focussing his visual inspections on those rams that have ASBVs aligned with his breeding objectives.
"I always use ASBVs when selecting rams and I go with them first before I look at the animal visually, but I still consider the visual assessment to be important as well," he said.
"The first thing I do in selecting the rams we’re going to use is get onto the MERINOSELECT database and go through all the latest figures because they can change as more information becomes available. Any rams with low figures can be thrown out on the basis of their ASBVs alone – but then when you start getting into the middle ranking rams we start looking at the physical side as well."
Importantly, Mr Drenkhahn does not look for the one stand out ram, but instead spreads his budget across a team of animals with similar ASBVs in the traits he is looking for.
"One really good ram will be good in some aspects, but when you pick a team you’ll get a consistent quality through all the selection criteria – from growth rates, fleece weights, micron – and you get a more predictable result," he said.
Within his flock Mr Drenkhahn also runs 500 stud ewes, from which he collects data for inclusion in MERINOSELECT and these data also contribute added accuracy to the Centre Plus group’s performance recording.
In 2014 Mr Drenkhahn also began using the Sheep Genomics DNA test from the Cooperative Research Centre for Sheep Industry Innovation (Sheep CRC), to identify which of his top 50 rams were carrying the genes needed for key production traits.
"We tested 50 here last year and it definitely works – at first it’s a bit hard to imagine just how it works, but it does and that’ the main thing," he said.
"The results match up with the figures you get from other measurements and the ASBVs so it all comes together – but the valuable thing about the DNA test is that you have that information much earlier in the animal’s life and make much earlier selection decisions.
"The DNA test is probably the easiest thing people can do because it’s just one snick a couple of drops of blood and then you send the sample away and get the relevant information back," he said.
"It’s a lot easier than spending a month pedigree and performance recording, which can sometimes take five to six hours a day. It’s such a time saver it’s not funny."
Media contact: Michael Thomson on 07 4927 0805 / 0408 819 666