Breeding better data

Breeding better data


Sheep
Producers will gain from identifying sheep that perform over their whole lifetime. MerinoLink 2017 drop lambs with 13 divergent industry sires represented, Cootamundra.

Producers will gain from identifying sheep that perform over their whole lifetime. MerinoLink 2017 drop lambs with 13 divergent industry sires represented, Cootamundra.

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A powerful data set for research and development is being created for the Merino industry.

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A powerful data set for research and development is being created for the Merino industry. 

The Merino Lifetime Productivity Project (MLP) aims to evaluate lifetime productivity, the relationship between wool, meat and lamb production, how to best select for lifetime productivity and the role genetics play in generating lifetime returns. 

It is a collaboration between Australian Wool Innovation (AWI) and the Australian Merino Sire Evaluation Association (AMSEA), with commercial partners, stud producers and farms involved. 

MLP project manager, Anne Ramsay, Melbourne, said the project will create the biggest Merino data set to comprehensively look at productivity and drivers of lifetime productivity from a genetic and economic perspective. 

The Merino Lifetime Productivity Project focuses on improving industry outcomes by investigating productivity over a complete lifetime, across different locations and genotypes. - Anne Ramsey, Melbourne.

“This means a massive amount of data gaps are being filled,” she said. 

“For industry it means we can look at what current systems deliver and where necessary improvements are needed and how to fine tune them 

The MLP is in its third year and will continue for nine more years. 

Key objectives

The main objective is to investigate Merino productivity over a lifetime across different locations and genotypes. 

MLP hopes to capture the impact and interaction between lifetime production, fleece production, carcase traits, reproduction and disease resistance throughout the life of Merinos ewes at locations across Australia.

The project team will collect information on traits influencing costs and returns throughout the lifetime of an un-selected group of ewes to refine and further define traits and selection criteria associated with lifetime productivity. 

From the results, the MLP aims to make recommendations for future programs of research and extension within AWI and also in the coming years provide wool growers with new information to enhance on-farm decision making.

MLP sites

Since it began in 2015 at Harrow, Victoria, the project has grown to include five sites across Australia, including MerinoLink Temora and Cootamundra; Macquarie at Trangie; New England at Armidale and at Pingelly, Western Australia.  

Sites are spread across the country to allow exploration of lifetime performance with a broad range of genetics in different environments. Each location has different lambing dates, seasonal challenges, sheep type and shearing dates.

“Having sites in divergent environments allows comprehensive assessment of Merinos in different environments and systems,” she said. 

Rams 

A total of 167 sires are represented in the project. Industry nominates the rams to be involved in the project, with sires specifically selected to meet project objectives. 

“Common sires are used between sites to allow linkage and to combine of information down the track,” she said. 

“Sires are a broad industry representation of types and different selection processes. There is a good range of horned and polled, broad to fine-wool rams included.

Some rams are selected on dual purpose objectives, others still selected for wool quality market.

“It is a cross section of genetics, young and old, highly successful show performance animals and MerinoSelect sires, and highly used rams. What we learn will be applicable across industry.”

Breeding

Across the sites, foundation ewes will initiall be joined via artificial insemination as part of the standard sire evaluation for two years, with first-cross ewe progeny being retained.

Following the standard sire evaluation, AWI supports the ongoing measurement and visual classing of the range of unselected first-cross ewe progeny through four to five joinings and annual shearings. 

DNA technologies

All sheep in the MLP are DNA pedigreed providing a great opportunity to look at DNA technology in the wool industry. 

“This allows us to join the first-cross ewes naturally to a syndicate, but understand individual parentage. All animals are performance measured and visual assessed.”

The project has a dedicated DNA system where DNA samples of the first-cross Merino ewes created through the AI of the foundation flock ewes are stored for the future DNA technology evaluation. 

“Some samples are sent off for parentage, some will be sent down the track for genomic testing and others could be used by industry for R&D”, she said. 

Data collected 

Data collected from the approximate 5000 first-cross ewes in the MLP include wool measurements, growth and carcase traits, disease and welfare, visual wool and confirmation traits, classing and joining, pregnancy and lambing information.

“Regular body condition scoring also takes place to understand the role it plays in lifetime productivity.”  

Fertility

For traits such as fertility, it will greatly enhance what we know and increase accuracy of fertility predictions. A lot of Merino breeders are not collecting the extent of data the project is.

“From the MLP, we can look at what we can collect or need to collect to get meaningful data,” she said.

“We are measuring everything to hone into what we can do easier and more efficiently to improve information and knowledge for wool growers.  

“This will help in identifying what fertility traits should be being measured. Fertility traits have the potential to deliver a huge improvement and strengthening reproduction ASBVs.”

New England Fine Wool foundation ewes currently in lamb to 15 divergent industry sires.

New England Fine Wool foundation ewes currently in lamb to 15 divergent industry sires.

Information flow to industry 

The standard sire evaluation in the initial two years of the projects life at the five sites in the are already producing reports to reflect ram performance at each site. These reports are available online. 

Annual field days allow interested industry participants to look at progeny side by side and in a hands-on environment. The annual publication, Merino Superior Sires, provides information to meet the industry wants and needs.  

MLP project specific information is being planned to allow everyone to examine the full suite of information available on progeny groups plus field days for a direct comparison of live animals.

“Producers can see at site when sires are given the same playing field and base, how diverse their progeny can be,” Anne Ramsay said. 

Into the future

MLP plans to genotype every animal to open up more data to look at how genotypic information relates to what is observed to validate technologies. 

“There is evidence and information available but for people to believe and adopt they often need to see it in practice and validated in environments they relate to,” she said. 

“Science suggests genomics offers potential to be a good predictor of performance for some traits but some need to see, touch and feel it to believe and adopt.

“The project will allow industry to value check the ability of emerging technology and perhaps some entrenched technology, against lifetime economic worth.”

From the results, they aim to make recommendations for future selection programs to optimise genetic gain for productivity and providence evidence data that current systems can be enhanced with.

The project aims to demonstrate to industry in a commercial environment the cost benefit relationship of measuring multiple adult traits throughout an animal’s lifetime. 

“From the project we can understand relationships between all elements and where we need to strengthen what we do.”

Industry return on investment 

AWI is funding $7 million to the project. Industry partners, entrants, site hosts and site committees are contributing $4 million.

The project is expected to offer considerable rate of return to industry providing a R&D platform and improving productivity which ultimately leads to a boost in profitability. 

For more project information head to MLP.

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