Breeders told sheep should ‘data how they look’

Terry Sim, April 8, 2022

Nick Gay – phenotype is still the number one priorioty.

NEW South Wales sheep and cattle producer Nick Gay has urged breeders to produce animals that “data how they look”, at the Meat & Livestock Australia Livestock Genetics Conference this week.

Nick and his wife Pen and three boys with staff run the Heulen Pastoral Company at Hovell’s Creek south-east of Cowra in New South Wales, producing beef, Merino wool and first cross lambs.

“Basically, we are joining 10,000 ewes and 500 breeding cows on about 3500 hectares.”

The theme of his presentation was using genetics to meet client needs and his key points included selecting sheep with Australian Sheep Breeding Values to support a set breeding objective.

“To get the best result you need to make sure that your management is meeting the genetics that you are chasing and number one is still phenotype, no matter how good the data is.”

He advised producers to share their breeding objective with their seedstock producer “so that they can help you achieves those goals.”

He said using ASBVs is about selecting the trait that will give the biggest economic return, using an Excel spread sheet and percentile bands to set a cut-off before looking at sheep onsite.

“When you are spending your hard-earned cash it’s about spending a bit more money on the genetics that will get you the biggest return.”

He also advised producers to purchase genetics from some-one they could trust, whose data’s accuracy and integrity is good and “they can show that what they are doing is actually correct.”

He said they look for a balance across traits, don’t trust extremes in any one trait and understand which traits work together or are antagonistic and tie management in with that.

He cautioned against focussing on massive post-weaning weights without putting a curb on adult weights. This put weight into ewes and was one of the reasons some producers were having problems with getting shearers.

It was also important to look at where seedstock was sourced, looking at optimum production not maximum production, Mr Gay said.

“Just going and buying your seedstock from the place that feeds them the best doesn’t necessarily mean they are the best genetics and will perform back in your environment.

Phenotype is still the number one priority

“Phenotype is still the number one priority for us in our business – Merino, first cross and second cross – so you’ve got to have the courage to walk past the ram at the auction that has all of the figures that you are looking for but doesn’t have the right structure,” he said.

“Structural faults mean that not only will that ram not last and perform for you when you’ve spent your hard-earned cash on him, the impact across your flock can be large and you can get bad wool traits or bad structure that goes the whole way through.

“That’s why it is so important to get on farm and have a look at the seedstock you are buying and actually do the physical assessment, don’t just buy on the figures, because they all look fantastic.”

The Gays decided to move to a non-mulesed flock three years ago, selecting rams with a lower estimated breech wrinkle breeding value that had plain breeches, then visually classed all the ewes, selecting them for a plainer breech.

They implemented better green feed management and doing an extra crutch when required.

“To get the gain out of that we then became Responsible Wool Standard certified to make sure we were getting the reward for putting in all extra effort on our sheep.”

He said it was important to evaluate whether the breeding objective was being achieved using RamSelect, flock profiling, feedback from processors, commercial benchmarking, client feedback and return business.

“Now we have all our first cross ewes sold before they are even born, to repeat clients and that’s through people taking them on, trying them out, getting the results that we are seeing, which is all coming from the genetics we’re selecting.”

Balance genetic tools with phenotype

Mr Gay said not all sheep with data are good and not all sheep without data are bad.

“But the genetics help you to select how those progeny are going to breed and it’s just a tool.

“So the genetics set the potential, but your management is how good all those genetics can be expressed.”

When asked if he was concerned that geneticists spruik breeding values and ignore phenotype, while breeders rely on phenotype and visual classing without breeding values, he advocated a balance between genetic and phenotypical assessment.

“It’s more about using a balance and using both tools together to get the type of sheep that is balanced both in terms of the genetics that you can’t see and the phenotype that you can see, that’s something that is relay important.

“It’s more about probably commercial people going too much one way or the other and I don’t think that you need to be one way or the other,” he said.

“You can find the studs that have the right phenotype and the right genotype, but you can’t just sit in your office and do an Excel spreadsheet and say ‘well these rams are the top five for the figures, I’m going to go and buy them’ – that’s a real danger.”

Mr Gay said he was excited about future genetic developments like new breeding values for traits such as eating quality, genomics and the wool follicle density work by Andrew Michael.

That’s all exciting stuff and will give us more information, but we still need to go and look at the (sheep’s) physical attributes.”

Easy care sheep will help the labour issue

Mr Gay said the biggest challenge – “the number one difficulty” — in their sheep business is labour.

“That’s on-farm labour, finding staff and also shearing teams, contractors, the whole lot.

“So genomics and genetics I hope will allow for an easy care sheep in the future and it will be a sheep that can produce good wool and a higher number of lambs and people will want to work with it,” he said.

“That’s probably the number one challenge that we’re facing, to get that non-mulesed high performing sheep and it’s not just going to be a matter of management, but (also) the genetics and the improvement need to come through that as well.”

On the issue of whether adoption of genetic tools would be helped by more demonstrations of the value of breeding values, Mr Gay said the accuracy of sheep breeding values needs to be so good that what you are seeing in the figures is what you see in the livestock.

“So I think that if you don’t have full parentage and are not capturing all that data and you are only taking it on the sire line not the dam line …. what you’ll see in the classing box is not accurate enough for you to get comfortable that figures match the physical.

“It’s really important that you get all that tied together, so you will have no questions that they will actually data how they look.

“They look like they’ve got good eye muscle and fat, and actually feel like they’ve got good eye muscle and fat, and the whole thing ties together.

“If the accuracy is not there I think it is very hard to convince people to rely on that data.”


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  1. Hansi Graetz, Pepper Well Poll Merino’s, April 8, 2022

    Nick has a very good understanding of ASBVs and puts it in simple language. Knowing the traits, the trade-offs between them, accuracy and balance is the key. If after reading, you are still unsure, read it again until you get it, then upskill your ASBVs knowledge ….easy.

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