Monday, July 10, 2017

Breeding a bloody good sheep isn't getting any easier

I attended the Beef and Lamb Sheep Breeders Forum in Napier this last week.   It’s a conference where breeders come and listen to various talks from scientists as to where we are heading with Genetic tools for breeding.    You meet and discuss a lot of issues with the experts and breeders a like.
While I learned a lot, I unfortunately came away feeling very uncomfortable about our future as breeders of sheep.    

One main theme was genomics, a DNA sample that (provided sufficient research and data has been gathered) will provide you with more accurate breeding values than what we presently get from Sheep Improvement Limited, SIL, via our phenotypic recording, i.e. weights etc.    One scientist stated if you are not genomically testing all your progeny then you shouldn’t be breeding sheep.   A farcical statement given for example I run a 1000 stud ewes, the cost of genomically testing all my progeny each year is around $35000 and while breeding value accuracies would be better, its not the panacea that makes breeding good sheep easy.   Sheep genetics is my passion and I am good at it, but do I have ram clients who will pay an extra $300 for rams to make it economic?   If you are one, give me a ring ASAP!! 

Scientists and breeders generally agreed that we need to be selecting for a lot of additional traits now; worm resistance, facial eczema, and feed efficiency etc, which I don’t disagree with.   However every additional trait you select for the difficulty in breeding a good sheep with that trait increases exponentially.    It is easier to breed a terminal sire than a dual purpose one, simply because you don’t have to worry about wool or fertility.   If you focus solely on one trait, you can make quick progress on that trait but inevitably at the expense of everything else.   To breed a good productive animal that is sound with all these additional traits takes generations of breeding!  It is highly likely that I will be dead before we do.

My other takeaway that concerned me was that the focus was entirely on performance recording to obtain genomic or phenotypic breeding values to breed a sheep.     This scares me because as I have said many times, you need to be a good stockman to breed a good sheep, figures alone won’t do it. Ultimately if a sheep is not good on its feet, teeth, colour, constitution etc then in the long term your production will decline.  I recently ran a report from the latest NZ SIL evaluation and reviewed the indexes and ebvs, of  my top 30 Romney ram lambs born in 2016 on SIL:  about half I culled as lambs as they weren’t  good enough structurally and I pride myself on how good the conformation of  my sheep are.  Finding a ram that is phenotypically put together right and with good figures isn’t easy. 
My last article re Headwaters and Alliance etc: it was reassuring to hear scientists and meat processors state that omega 3 and intramuscular fat is present in most sheep to varying degrees and does have an effect on taste, but there is a limit as to how much you want and more importantly its influence is  minor in the context of the other factors affecting eating quality, namely stress on the animal, the chance for the  animal to lay down fat before being killed, what it was being finished on, how long it is hung for, how it is cooked etc.    Accordingly if Alliance gave us some direction as to what they wanted us to finish these lambs on, we should all get paid the same!

Finally whenever someone wants to promote lamb, they seem hell bent on presenting it cooked as “rare”.   Both times last week I didn’t like the lamb, one lot I thought was bloody awful.   I like my steak medium rare, but my lamb/ mutton well cooked.  It might be just me, but if it’s not and we are promoting the eating quality of lamb then this is something we need to get right.