‘Get better or get gone’ was the theme of the biennial Sheep Breeders Round Table held near Nottingham. Angela Calvert reports.
The results of an AHDB Beef and Lamb-funded report looking into the financial benefits of genetic improvement and the potential of genomics in the beef and sheep industries were revealed at the event.
Kim Matthews, head of research and development at AHDB Beef and Lamb, said the report concluded the value of genetic improvement in sheep was £10.7 million per annum.
He said the main barriers to even faster genetic gain were a lack of education in genetics which could be used to influence buying decisions, a lack of focus on economically important maternal traits and concerns about data quality and quantity.
Mr Matthews said using genomics in sheep offered little potential to reduce the generation interval, which was where most value was gained in other species, such as dairy cattle.
Therefore, the greater benefits must come from better prediction accuracy, with maternal traits offering the best opportunity for this.
While gains of 5-15 per cent were possible, large numbers of animals needed to be phenotyped before this could be achieved.
However, Mr Matthews said using genomics as a ‘disruptive technology’ could lead to wider changes and, ultimately, significant genetic gain.
Paul Westaway is chairing the AHDB Genetic Review Group which will implement the report’s findings.
He said priorities were to support producers in recording a wider range of phenotypes, particularly for the hard to measure traits and, by on-farm demonstration, to highlight the benefits of using higher genetic merit sires and recording new traits, particularly maternal ones.
The first steps towards this will be to develop guidance on DNA collection and storage, and work on a programme of genetic improvement grants to be considered for funding.
This was the question posed by Jamie Newbold, professor of animal science and director of research, Ibers, Aberystwyth.
He said bugs in the rumen produced methane as part of the process to remove hydrogen and, by understanding how this worked, it could be possible to influence the process. By doing so, methane emissions from the animal could be reduced.
The microbial population of the gut is established in early life. Studies on feeding lambs different regimes showed diet could influence the balance of microbes and these changes could last for up to a year.
As such, he said the answer to the question was yes – we could program the rumen to an extent as, although it was affected by genetics, it was also influenced by nutrition in early life.
Nicola Lambe, sheep researcher at SRUC, outlined the benefits of developing an estimated breeding value (EBV) for sheep feed efficiency to reduce costs and/or increase sheep stocking rates.
To do this would require data on feed intake from 1,000-2,000 sheep while also continuing trials using EID technology and feed hoppers.
Ms Lambe said: “Currently, there is no reliable method of measuring feed intake at grass so a solution to this needs to be found before significant progress can be made.”
She said to gain the most benefit, efficiency should be logged with sheep which were already well-recorded to see the relationships with other traits, such as reproductive output and body composition, as these were likely to be linked.
However, Ms Lambe said there were also arguments as to whether selecting for feed efficiency would be worthwhile and, if it was to happen, there needed to be industry-wide collaboration to share knowledge and equipment.
Ron Lewis, professor of animal breeding and genomics from the University of Nebraska, gave an overview of the sheep breeding industry in the United States, where the national flock comprised of 3.5 million sheep, but was declining.
He said lamb consumption in the US was low, with little consumer demand, and most of the primary breeds were wool sheep.
However, the National Sheep Improvement Programme (NSIP) was established in 1987 with the aim of producing EBVs for the US sheep industry. Cross flock evaluation then started in 1995.
A major development in 2000 was the partnership with LambPlan (Australia) which had since done the data processing for NSIP.
Only a small percentage of sheep in the US were recorded, with one of the major wool breeds, the Rambouillet, not participating at all up until now, although Prof Lewis said some breeders were interested in getting involved, so this could change.
He said: “SNIP recorded rams are only meeting 4 per cent of the demand for terminal sires which presents a tremendous opportunity for increased recording.
“However, the low profile of the industry means sourcing funding for research, training and education is challenging.”
As such, there was also little opportunity for genomic selection, although Prof Lewis said it was still necessary to build a reserve of DNA samples from well chosen NSIP sheep.