Golden trio for Merinos

Fat, muscle, growth the ultimate trio bringing big returns for Merinos

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David Greig, Bellevue, Tottenham, has seen a two-fold increase in the number of lambs marked at his place after targeting fat, muscle and growth.

David Greig, Bellevue, Tottenham, has seen a two-fold increase in the number of lambs marked at his place after targeting fat, muscle and growth.

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A renewed focus on fat, muscle and growth brings substantial returns for Merino producers, with more lambs on the ground and a tougher, more resilient article.

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The strong demand for sheep meat in recent years has influenced Merino breeders to target dual purpose production systems.

Targeting fat, muscle and growth traits is fast becoming a game-changer for the once wool dominant Merino breed.

Not only does it have the potential to double an enterprise's lambing rates and improve wool production, it might also make them a major player in the sheepmeat market space by meeting consumer demands with premium value lamb cuts.

Tottenham Merino producer David Greig (who is featured on our cover) says lambing rates on his property have increased almost two-fold in 10 years, since selecting rams with above-average Australian Sheep Breeding Values (ASBVs) for fat and muscle, and good growth rates.

Mr Greig, who owns the 5300 hectare mixed farming enterprise, Bellevue, will join 4500 ewes while also cropping 2200ha in 2022.

He changed his genetic base in 2012, and has noticed a significant improvement from those rams.

"Prior to Mumblebone (genetics) we were averaging 75 per cent (lambs marked) to ewes joined," Mr Greig said.

At his recent lamb marking, Mr Greig calculated 143pc lambs marked.

"I want to get to 150pc in the Merinos and I think we can do it, but the season has got to go with you," he said.

And according to Wool Producers Australia CEO, Jo Hall, Mr Greig isn't the only one pushing the industry envelope with a focus on carcase traits.

"Anecdotally we're hearing producers are taking more interest in the Australian Sheep Breeding Values," Ms Hall said.

During this year's ram selling season, studs offering performance recording across a number of traits for both wool and meat production saw a lot of interest

Mr Greig said that to select rams, he ranked the entire sale draft, focusing this year on the number of lambs weaned and then on other desirable factors including breech wrinkle and breech cover.

He chooses not to use selection indexes, instead opting to target carcase and reproduction traits while maintaining fleece weight.

This year, he purchased new rams with slightly above-average clean fleece weights recorded on the Sheep Geneticsdatabase.

"You end up with a far more resilient animal and one that responds quicker to changes in the season, and is less affected by adverse seasons," Mr Greig said.

An animal's condition score will increase quickly if a break in the season occurs or supplementary feed is introduced, and overall less supplementary feed will be needed.

Meanwhile he said the bare breech traits came as part of the package.

"We've crossed that bridge with the breech wrinkle side of things," he said.

"People looking to cease mulesing today would get there faster because the data is there, and it's easier to achieve than it was 10 years ago."

David Greig, Bellevue, Tottenham, next year will join 4500 Merinos while cropping 2200ha.

David Greig, Bellevue, Tottenham, next year will join 4500 Merinos while cropping 2200ha.

After joining his entire ewe lamb cohort this year and achieving a 63pc marking result, Mr Greig said that he now hoped to get a lamb from as many seven-month-old ewes lambs as possible, putting selection pressure on his flock to produce the most fertile ewes.

He expected the pay-off would come as those ewes' daughters filtered through in the next generations, contributing to an increased proportion of the overall flock.

Recently, Mr Greig has taken advantage of long-term agistment to accommodate the demands of such high lambing rates. In 2019 and 2020 his entire flock was based at Wilcannia, and in July 2020 some ewes were also at Coolah.

"We had such a good lambing rate we needed to spread them out to lamb them. It's a good problem to have and they're easy to replace at those reproductive rates," he said.

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Meanwhile NSW Department of Primary Industries sheep genetics researcher, Dr Sue Mortimer, says new data taken from more than 1400 Merino wethers will help dual-purpose operators to become major players in the sheepmeat market.

With improved conditions across the state's wool growing regions and the herd rebuild gathering pace, wool production in 2021 and 2022 is forecast to increase by 6.9pc. At the same time, sheepmeat exports surpassed a record $1 billion last year. Dr Mortimer said these factors were driving traditional, commercial Merino producers to consider a dual-purpose operation.

She said the latest research would assist producers in genetic selection, by improving the accuracy of selecting for meat yield and quality, and wool production traits.

"Data was collected from more than 1400 wethers sourced from the Merino Lifetime Productivity project and submitted to the national genetics database for Merino sheep, MerinoSelect," Dr Mortimer said.

"Genetic parameters were estimated for carcase yield, muscling and fat traits, tenderness, fresh meat colour, retail colour stability, pH and mineral traits.

"The research found these traits were inherited. With the right breeding program, producers can have the confidence they will breed animals to better satisfy consumer preference." The research is now available to be combined with Merino data from other sources, enabling more accurate estimation of genetic parameters for meat production and quality.

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