Australia could continue to ride on the back of a Merino sheep, the iconic breed becoming not only valuable for its wool but for its meat as well.
Research is underway to create genetic breeding plans that improve both wool production and meat quality for dual-purpose Merinos.
NSW Department of Primary Industry's, Dr Sue Mortimer is presenting her recent study into Merino meat trait selection at The Graham Centre's Livestock Forum.
"Merino breeders have always focused on improving wool production and quality in response to market demand and now some breeders are keen to boost production by emphasising improved meat traits," Dr Mortimer said.
Dr Mortimer said so far, heritability estimates show traits, including intramuscular fat, meat pH and iron content, can be selected in Merino breeding programs.
"Using Australian Sheep Breeding Values, appropriate selection indexes and breeding objectives should allow both wool production and meat quality improvements," Dr Mortimer said.
She said the key was working out unfavorable genetic relationships between meat and wool traits that may need monitoring.
"We did find a low unfavorable relationship between fleece weight with intramuscular fat," Dr Mortimer said.
"Therefore, breeding programs that focus heavily on improving fleece weight would need to avoid deterioration of intramuscular fat."
Another example was breeding programs that emphasised fibre diameter were found to lead to increased pH in loin meat.
"The pH of the meat is important as it is related to the tenderness of the meat, its colour and its retail shelf life," Dr Mortimer said.
"You want to avoid high pH levels."
She said her current research was based on data from the Sheep CRC.
"We had 1200 records available, which is a relatively small data set," Dr Mortimer said.
"But this has stimulated on-going research projects to make sure more data is collected.
"We're looking to extend the range of genetic relationships studied to include eating quality, reproduction and welfare traits."
Although it's early days for research into dual-purpose Merinos, some producers have been running the breed for both wool and meat for years.
Impressive lambing results from dual-purpose Merinos
David Greig of Bellevue, Tottenham said they changed to incorporate dual purpose Merino breeding around 8 years ago.
"We originally were looking for a plainer bodied Merino and as a result of finding that we've also found a sheep that gives us more lambs, grows better and has probably got better eating quality as well," Mr Greig said.
He said in a normal year they would join a total of 3000 Merino ewes.
"We're a pure Merino breeding operation and we aim to join two thirds of the ewes to Merino rams as a self-replacing flock and then the other third are joined to Border Leicesters," he said.
He said they looked to buy rams that were positive for the Australia Sheep Breeding Values of fat depth and eye muscle depth.
"Fat and muscle ASBVs give you a far more resilient sheep and that doesn't come at the detriment of eating quality or the wool quality," Mr Greig said.
He said for their operation getting more lambs on the ground was more important than minor improvements in wool quantity or quality.
"We ran solely wool focused Merinos side by side with dual-purpose Merinos and the dual-purpose sheep had 45% more lambs," Mr Greig said.
"That was an extreme increase so it got us a lot more interested in looking at those sheep."
Mr Greig said the more studs help collect this carcass data, the easier it will be for a producer to start targeting meat traits when looking to purchase rams.
- Dr Sue Mortimer will present "Breeding for quality lamb meat from Merinos" at the Graham Centre's Livestock Forum in Wagga Wagga on July 26th.