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DNA tests take the guesswork out of breeding easy-care sheep

Monday 18th of November 2013

DNA testing has taken the guesswork out of breeding for fast-tracked profitability on Andrew Heinrich’s Kangaroo Island farm - and he is just in the experimental stage of using the cutting-edge technology.

Mr Heinrich said having confidence in his mating predictions was making it easier to get consistent genetic gain, in turn improving profitability.

"We are already seeing through measurements such as LAMBPLAN and MERINOSELECT that we have made huge gains, so we know that objective tools work," Mr Heinrich said.

"Genomic testing gives us an added level of confidence in our selections, as well as access to information about hard to measure traits, like eating quality."

Mr Heinrich runs a White Suffolk stud and newly formed Poll Merino stud on 820ha in the centre of the island south west of Adelaide, and has high hopes for what genomic testing will be able to achieve for his business in years to come.

In the commercial flock he mates 1500 Merino ewes to Merinos and 1000 to prime lamb, in addition to having a White Suffolk stud ewe flock of 500 and about 400 Poll Merino ewes.

A long involvement with industry objective measurement programs, including LAMBPLAN since the late ‘90s, has already significantly boosted profitability on his farm.

As a result he is keen to make use of the new technology as soon as it becomes available, and through the Cooperative Research Centre for Sheep Industry Innovation (Sheep CRC) he is now DNA testing his White Suffolks stud, with plans to expand the technology out across the rest of his flock.

"In our Whites we use a lot of ram lambs because this is a good way to reduce generation interval and increase rate of genetic progress. We use about 12 to 14 ram lambs and genomic test all of them," Mr Heinrich said.

"We look at the predicted eating quality traits so if we have got one there that we know does not have good shear force or inter-muscular fat, we most likely will not use that ram lamb.

"At this stage we are still experimenting with the use of DNA tests in our Merino program, but I am thinking about using ram lambs this year and that’s where the genomics test results will give us a chance to speed up our genetic gain like we are doing in our Whites."

Operating as part of the Federal Department of Innovation’s CRC program, the Sheep CRC is a collaboration of industry, government and the commercial sector. It is working to increase the productivity and profitability of the industry through adoption of new technologies in both the meat and wool supply chains.

Following a series of pilot projects with leading breeders, the Sheep CRC has now delivered DNA tests to mainstream breeders at $50 a test. The CRC for Sheep Industry Innovation is co-funded under the Commonwealth Government’s Cooperative Research Centres Program Transforming wool, meat and the sheep that produce them

For Mr Heinrich, the genomic profiles will be used to improve confidence in his mating predictions, especially when using ram lambs, as well as ensuring he maintains a polled Merino flock.

Mr Heinrich is in a high rainfall area, which brings with it all issues such as fleece rot and coloured wool.

To combat these issues he had his eye on a ram from the NSW New England area; however the DNA test revealed that it carries a recessive horn gene. By horn-testing all of his ewes and mating the ram only to ewes with double poll genes, he will be maintain to the flock’s poll status and hopefully end up with good quality double poll rams for future matings.

"We want to breed easy care sheep and to be easy care they need to be polls," Mr Heinrich said.

"It gives us confidence if we use a poll ram, we can ask for that genomic test to see if he’s got the double poll (gene), because we have got a lot of horn in our flock as it is."

Mr Heinrich said genomic testing offered huge opportunities for ensuring eating quality was important for being able to offer a reliable product to consumers, which was vital in today’s market.

"We believe consumers that go to the supermarket to buy meat need to have a good consistent eating experience," he said.

He said he was grateful for the research being carried out by the Sheep CRC.

"We need the CRC; it is terrific what they are doing and I am really excited by what they are achieving.

"It couldn’t be run by seed stock producers or farmers; we are too busy doing our own thing and we are not scientists."

More information on genomic testing of sheep is available at www.sheepcrc.com.au

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