Breed for ‘bricks’ to produce efficient ewes, says NZ sheep scientist

Kim Woods August 23, 2017

New Zealand sheep scientist Dr Mark Ferguson.

A LOW, squat, wide ‘brick’ of an animal will be the efficient breeding ewe of 2027.

Sheep scientist Dr Mark Ferguson, of New Zealand, is urging Australian commercial producers to open their minds to this futuristic concept over the next decade.

“If we want to breed a profitable sheep, we must learn to like what it looks like,’’ Dr Ferguson said.

He said the drive for maternal efficiency and selection for muscling would change maturity pattern and shape.

“Mature ewe size is reduced, the face is plainer, and the shape has gone from a big frame to a low, squat, wide brick of an animal,’’ he said.

“They are positive for muscle and fat, and robust.

“We have to keep our minds open to what sheep need to look like to make us money.

“At ram sales, the biggest correlation with price is the weight of the animal on the day,” Dr Ferguson said.

“As an industry, we are really good at selecting for big animals but who likes handling big, 100kg stroppy ewes?

“As we get into these extreme muscling sheep, we are seeing animals with early maturity and increasing width.’’

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As the principal of neXtgen Agri Ltd, Dr Ferguson was a keynote speaker at the Trigger Vale White Suffolks 2017 information day on August 18, in southern New South Wales.

Dr Ferguson said the rams bought this year would impact on a producer’s business for the next 10 years.

“If you are looking at ram prices today, that is not relevant to your breeding program,’’ he said.

“Think about the trends and what has changed from 10 years ago to now, and make some   predictions about what will change in the future.

“In 10 years’ time the scrutiny from activists is not going to disappear – only if brands step up and make them irrelevant through their own scrutiny on the industry.’’

Dr Ferguson said the plant-based protein movement would confront the lamb industry over the next decade.

“This is not a flash in the pan – it has about $400 million worth of investment,’’ he said.

“People are producing meat without having any animals involved.

“They will take market share but I don’t think they will wipe out meat consumption,” he said.

“The way these products are being marketed is about the footprint our animal industries have on the world.

“We will see a whole new wave of pressure on our industry.’’

Dr Ferguson said grain may be diverted to human consumption within 10 years so sheep may be solely pasture finished.

He said organics was now a major movement winning significant market share.

Chemical use in meat sheep production systems will also increasingly come under scrutiny.

“I see the rise and rise of ethical products based on animal welfare and chemical use – big brands are developing this as their platform,’’ Dr Ferguson said.

“But there is opportunity in the sense that people want to connect with farmers, want transparency in the production system and know who is producing their fibre and food.

“If we get our story right and tell it well, it is a big opportunity for our industry.’’

Going into the next decade, yearling fat depth will be a key selection trait in breeding ewes, along with genetic resistance to worms to reduce drench usage, and footrot resistance. Yearling eye muscle depth will be the turbo-charger for the modern ewe.

“Muscling is positively correlated to reproduction, worm resistance and staple strength,” Dr Ferguson said.

He said bright, white wool and wrinkle-free skin on maternal ewes was important to reduce chemical treatments plus clean points to lift lamb production.



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  1. Rodney Watt, August 29, 2017

    I agree to some extent. Croppers don’t grow a crop because it looks good; it’s all about yield, protein and oil. Sheep breeders need to get over the ‘the biggest is the best’ thinking and allow breeding values to evolve sheep into the most productive and efficient model. I’m pleased to say most of our clients have.

  2. Andrew Bouffler, August 28, 2017

    As the principle of Trigger Vale Poll Merino and White Suffolk studs, where Mark made these comments at our open day, the context was largely that it’s the Merino ewe that needs to make this transformation if she is going to stay relevant and more profitable than the swing to composites. A heavy focus on early growth, fat and muscle in our breeding program for over 10 years has resulted in this transformation taking place in front of our very eyes, while still maintaining wool cut. There certainly can also never be a compromise on structure and this change isn’t an either/or situation. Breeding towards these animals doesn’t mean legs, balls, mouths etc will be compromised.

  3. Joe Spicer, August 27, 2017

    Interesting reading and opinions. I’m not a Charollias breeder and have no vested interest, but they tick all the boxes for the ‘next-gen’ maternal ewe.
    Not a brick, but a chunky little wedge with small shoulders and well-muscled money end. They are good doers that are highly fertile; great mums that spit them out. Check them out.

  4. Ranald Noble, August 24, 2017

    Okay Mark, your animals fit well in the intensive areas of Australia, but you do not have to go 100km from the coast and you find yourself in extensive areas; where the animal needs to walk up to 2km to water. The majority of animal breeders still need to focus on legs, balls and bite to ensure sustainable production.

  5. Matt Tonissen, August 23, 2017

    You are on the money, Mark. Our industry needs early maturing moderate frame score ewes. In the high rainfall zones of southern Australia I would estimate New Zealand genetics to have an influence in the majority of self-replacing maternal flocks.

  6. John Gardner, August 23, 2017

    Fantastic insight to the future threats and opportunities, Mr Ferguson. The threat for the red meat industry from cellular agriculture is growing and becoming affordable very quickly. Hopefully our industry can adapt to and understand our consumer desires to maintain market share. This may be the pressure our industry needs. A very exciting 10 years to come.

  7. Frank Egan, August 23, 2017

    G’day, the move back to “wide” fronted animals will return us all to the “bad old days” of pulling lambs. We spent almost 20 years breeding a smooth-shouldered ram to make lambing in the paddock unsupervised, with birth weights slightly under the average to reduce birth stress on the ewe and lamb/lambs.

  8. Colin Earl, August 23, 2017

    The ‘bricks’ in the Elmore trial are performing very poorly. There are better ways to improve reproductive rates than to turn our ewes into terminals that return very little wool value. New Zealand has not delivered us any genetic material that has proven to be of any value in the longer term and I think that this particular piece of advice similarly needs validation in our production systems over time.

  9. Why wool? Full names required in future for reader comments please Denis, as per our long-standing comments policy: Editor.

  10. Mal Cock, August 23, 2017

    New Zealand bred the Perendale, which fits the description above to a “T”. Put a good White Suffolk ram over them to complete the equation for profitable production of high yield and quality carcasses.

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