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DNA Flock Profiling delivers sheep breeding insights at Europambela

Friday 22nd of July 2016

New England Merino breeder Tony Overton has a much clearer picture of the genetic make-up of his superfine Merino flock and the areas which need attention following trials of a new application for the 15k DNA test designed specifically for commercial producers.

Mr Overton, who manages 9000 ewes at ‘Europambela’ in the Walcha district, was a participant in early field trials of the DNA Flock Profiler, being developed by the Cooperative Research Centre for Sheep Industry Innovation (Sheep CRC).

The test involves randomly selecting 20 ewes from the youngest age group for DNA testing to generate a set of flock average breeding values for key economic traits by identifying the extent of genetic linkages with animals of known breeding values from the Information Nucleus database.

“To test 20 ewes and get a genetic profile is pretty amazing I think,” Mr Overton said. “The results of the Flock Profiler test confirmed a number of things we knew about our flock, but they also revealed that our genetics for a couple of key traits – micron and fleece weight – were more extreme than we had previously believed.

“While we are still assessing what this information means to our breeding program, I’m confident it will be of great value in the future as we think about our ram selection, joining decisions and flock structure. It’s definitely given us a clearer picture of the things that we need to be working on.”

The test has been designed to provide commercial sheep breeders with a more precise understanding of the genetic merit of their flock and how it compares to industry averages.

An understanding of the starting point for flock improvement will enable more precise and targeted selection of future rams using Australian Sheep Breeding Values (ASBVs) to drive their business forward.

Europambela is a 7000-hectare aggregation carrying 9000 Merino ewes (average micron 15.6), 7000 wethers (15.2 micron) and 5000 hoggets (14.2 micron), plus 800 breeding cows.

Shearing 20,000 sheep this year, the superfine wool flock business is targeting the Italian-style spinners market.

Of the ewe flock 3000 are joined to Terminal sires and 6000 to Merino rams, including a nucleus flock of 550 ewes used for breeding flock rams.

The Flock Profiler test results revealed that Mr Overton could ease selection pressure for micron, but exert more pressure on increasing fleece weight, which currently average 3.1kg for grown sheep and about 2.2kg for hoggets, as well as increasing body weight.

“The Flock Profiler test is a great tool for benchmarking the genetic strengths and weaknesses of a flock, and we anticipate using that information in combination with RamSelect.com.au when we look to buy in outside genetics to improve our flock’s productivity,” Mr Overton said.

“By breeding your own rams the speed of genetic gain can be a bit slower but we are confident about getting the changes that we want. That said, we do buy in some genetics from outside if they fit the bill and we will buy semen for an AI program with about 50 or 60 of our best ewes.”

The results from the DNA testing will be complementary to progress through the application of precision measurement technologies he has introduced to deliver more precise breeding methods into the operation.

Mr Overton, who has been managing Europambela for 13 years, began the process a decade ago with the gradual introduction of electronic identification technology.

Data gathering has gradually expanded to include weight monitoring, condition score, pregnancy, and fleece data, culminating in the development of a RamPower Index for selecting commercial replacement ewes.

“Using a RamPower Index has really done wonders for us. By adopting these systems we’ve been able to reduce our micron from 17.1 micron some 10 years ago to where it is now without compromising fleece weight,” he said.

Having captured significant phenotypic data, he has since refined his breeding objectives and will be generating ASBVs in the ram breeding nucleus to increase accuracy of selection and achieve faster rates of genetic gain in the future.

The next step will be using DNA tests for parentage in conjunction with genomic predictions of breeding values, with a view to improving dam pedigree and identifying replacement rams earlier in life.

“A lot of studs are already using these tools, but getting them into an easily adoptable commercial format has been the key for us to follow suit,” he said.

Media contact: Michael Thomson, 0408 819 666.

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