BY 2052, genetic advances in ram mating success might halve the number of Merino rams needed, and improvements in ewe survival and feed efficiency could help meet global greenhouse obligations, wool growers were told last week.
Australian Wool Innovation’s program manager – genetics, Geoff Lindon also said visual classing will continue to be an important selection tool, as well as measurement of more objective traits.
In his synopsis of Australian Merino breeding’s past, present, and future up to 2052, during the Balmoral Breeders Field Day Bonanza, Mr Lindon said on-farm assessments in Merinos are currently dominated by young post-weaner and yearling age traits.
“Sire evaluation is one of the lead ways whereby progeny are getting tested and using older age measurements up until early hogget and adult ages and they are looking at a broad range of wool and carcase and visual and welfare traits.
“But that’s really different to what’s happening on-farm, where it is dominated by younger age measurements,” he said.
Mr Lindon said most ram sellers are keen to class their older age animals and many studs class their sires and ewes on an annual basis. Most are aware that long-term genetic advice advocates a two-stage selection process of evaluation at one and two years of age “but are cautious or resistant to the cost.”
AWI surveys indicate 25pc of Merino growers don’t class their sheep, 31pc used a sheep classer and 44pc class their own sheep.
Mr Lindon said surveys by AWI showed that 25 percent of wool growers breed their own rams and about one third of current Merino ram sellers are members of MERINOSELECT.
“They sell around 50pc of Merino rams and about 70pc of the semen.
“About half of current Merino ram breeders sell a relatively small number of rams and ASBV technology can add considerable cost to their business.”
Currently Australian sheep breeders artificially inseminate about 250,000 ewes laparoscopically and most of these are Merino ewes, he said.
Phenotypic welfare traits such as condition score, flies, worm parasites are increasingly significant, along with 50K genotype testing, “and the recent trends in those traits are gathering momentum, he said.
Reproduction trait focus will increase
Mr Lindon said the new reproduction traits such as conception, litter size, ewe rearing ability, and along with lambing ease and scrotal circumference, and mature ewe weight, will be an increasing focus in the next 10 years.
“Sire evaluation is growing and there is more interest in reproduction and in feed efficiency, and in what might be coming next.”
Mr Lindon said semen prices have not been increasing as much as flock ram prices. Matesel is being used more to minimize culls, optimize genetic gain and minimize in-breeding.
He said the update of Sheep Genetics database to include all data in one database would open up new analysis opportunities.
“The MERINOSELECT phenotype and genotype sides of the database now each total four terrabytes.
“So collectively eight terrabytes of information is being analysed on a fortnightly basis.”
Sheep Genetics in the next few years will release a data quality score that will highlight to ram buyers which ram sellers are collecting a broad range of data and following best practice in doing so.”
Informed visual classing will retains its importance
In 2052, Mr Lindon believed well-informed experienced visual classing will remain a cheap effective way of evaluating sheep across their lifetime.
“How to get the balance in combining visual with ever-expanding and expected objective assessment will remain an ongoing challenge.
“Finding the truly elite individuals and breeding from them will remain a mix of science, observation and gut knowhow,” he said.
“The use of population genetics and progeny testing will continue to support and reward those who can find the individuals amongst the masses.”
Feed efficiency and carbon data will be important
Mr Lindon said combining production data with feed intake and whole body energy will have big returns, but it is a complex area.
Sire evaluation sites and some larger ram breeders will be assessing individual sires for feed efficiency and whole body energy, and carbon dioxide and methane data gained from doing so, is likely to be viewed as an essential part of meeting our global obligations.”
Mr Lindon said the MLP project is pointing to a large variation in lifetime survival and bringing a survival traits into the analysis will bring significant return advantages in surplus sheep sales.
By 2052, the number of rams required could be halved by selecting for ram mating success, he said.
Mr Lindon said by 2052, the use of artificial breeding since 1982 meant that for more than 40 years breeders would have been using the frozen semen of selected rams.
“This has actually reduced the natural selection for semen quality and for libido.”
Mr Lindon said one of the by-products of the MLP project has been looking at ram mating success.
“We know that ram mating success is heritable in other sheep breeds and it’s likely in 2052, I’m going to project, that the number of rams you will need will be halved and the advantage in doing that will be shared by the ram buyer and the seller.”
He said genomics will assist the hard-to-measure traits for lifetime production – survival, feed intake and resilience.
“And the MLP (project) is showing that there are rams that can do it all and this will continue despite the additional traits.”
“Full pedigreed and electronic identification will be required along with lifetime roll calls and lifetime data collection,” he said.
“Every genetic evaluation depends on the use of link sires through frozen semen and laparoscopic AI.”
Mr Lindon said AI technology has “headwinds” as it is an invasive practice, involving the use of fluids from other species — pregnant mare serum — which are banned in some countries.
“So we need to find a way to use frozen thawed semen by cervical AI in unsynchronized programs.”
AWI and Sydney University, along with researchers in the United States and France, have been looking at trying to isolate the proteins that are damaged in semen when it is frozen. Four proteins have been isolated that are damaged on freezing leading to the 20pc conception rate using cervical AI, he said. Overcoming the damage could lead to 70pc conception using frozen thawed semen via cervical AI, Mr Lindon said.
Feed efficiency could increase stocking rates
Mr Lindon said there will need to be a motive and profits for ram sellers to survive and investigate these new breeding developments and options.
“I’ve already mentioned the improvements in survival will increase sheep sales and culling rates.
“Breeding for feed efficiency could lead to stocking rates (increasing) by 10-20pc on current indications and more if we follow the success of other breeds” he said.
“I think Matesel will have expanded to include all the important visual and objective traits, culls will be minimized and rams sold to rams left entire at marking could return back to the heydays of 65-70pc, which will have major profitability impacts for ram breeders.
“I think there will be streamlined processes to collect, send, validate and return the data analysed and there will be improved analysis for a wider range of traits.”
Mr Lindon predicted that the most profitable arrangement will be for five or ten studs to combine in a loose arrangement with similar breeding objectives in a similar production environment with 1000-1500 similar pedigreed measured ewes and having combined semen and elite ram sale auctions.
“Supply chains will have significantly more transparent access to the group and their clients’ practices encouraging price advantages along the wool supply chain for the sale of surplus sheep.”
Reflecting on the past 30 years, Mr Lindon said in 1992 the reserve price for wool was teetering, faxes were brand new, there was little scanning for fat or muscle, there were no laptops or mobile phones, no commercial internet and no software packages.
“Merino sire evaluation (had) only just started as had Merino Benchmark, which was the first across flock Merino evaluation. It was just doing two runs per year, not a run every fortnight, like Sheep Genetics does for MERINOSELECT today.”
“My father used to say to me as a teenager ‘sometimes you sit and think and sometimes you just sit’, but perhaps today I have stood and overthought where we might be in 2052, but the drive for better in humankind always pushes the boundary and given the changes in genetic evaluation over the last 30 years and the escalating pace in which change occurs, the next 30 years will provide many opportunities to keep the Merino a viable profitable enterprise.”
The Merino industry is declining in relation to ewes joined, a trend that could well continue.
Why is this, you may ask?
I see it simply like this, the traditional Merinos, of the type that are hard to shear, wrinkly, need mulesing and are of lower fertility and survival are the sheep of yesterday.
The market is saying that they want wool from unmulesed sheep.
The exciting thing is that the decline can be stopped, simply by using the genetic solution.
The headwinds of laparoscopic AI have been emerging for some time. It is very likely to be banned in Australia as it has been in more advanced countries. There needs to be more technicians trained for cervical AI ready to fill the gap.