The recently completed Sheep Cooperative Research Centre (Sheep CRC) in Australia is a shining example of research effectively delivering game-changing technologies for farmers. Over a period of 18 years from 2001, the three CRC terms have transformed the Australian sheep industry to greater productivity and profit under the mantra “concept to impact”.

This spectacular transformation results from co-operation between four state departments of primary industries (DPIs), producer organisations, universities, commercial companies and farming groups. All 40 partners work together, with financial and in-kind contributions matched dollar for dollar by the Australian federal government’s multi-million-dollar investment.

The CRC concept has been widely used across many industries in Australia including farming, manufacturing, telecommunications and mining. The farming sector has seen CRCs in wool, sheep, beef, and predator control.

Much of the emerging Sheep CRC technology is applicable to our New Zealand sheep industry as are aspects of the highly successful co-operative research model. Press releases and detailed reports can be found by Googling “Sheep CRC”.

This author was privileged to be part of the Sheep CRC between 2004 and 2013 while based at the University of New England at Armidale in northern New South Wales. Insights here are from my role as operations manager of the Sheep CRC’s Information Nucleus (IN), run at eight DPI research sites in four states of Australia with involvement of some 32 science and technical staff.

The IN sheep genomics programme, reputedly one of the largest of its type in the world, saw some 25,000 lambs born to artificial insemination across the eight sites over five years. Around 50 production traits were measured in all lambs, and one third were DNA tested using 50k single nucleotide polymorphism (SNP) chips, each from a drop of blood. Each SNP represented a chunk of DNA, some relating to a gene or group of genes controlling targeted production traits.

The schematic of the IN programme below shows linkages between the eight research sites, Australian Sheep Breeding Values (ASBVs), and Sheep Genomics, with the central Sheep CRC database. Research projects were broadly grouped into meat, wool and easy-care programmes.

On the back of the central IN programme the many research dimensions included meat and wool quality, genomic breeding values, e-sheep systems for precision management, easy-care sheep, animal health including parasites, reproductive performance, and various management regimes. A prerequisite for research was that applied deliverables be completed within the time frame of each 5-6 year CRC term.

Other important activities were information dissemination to farmers, and student teaching including postgraduates at some participating universities.

One of the big hits from this CRC has been delivery of innovative genomic breeding values. These were estimated from calibration of SNPs against traditional estimated breeding values (EBVs) from measured traits. A major benefit of genomic EBVs is wider use in pedigree linked or related animals, giving greater genetic reach.

Another plus is ability to provide estimates in young animals. For example, genomic EBVs for post-weaning liveweights can be obtained for young lambs from a blood sample, thus speeding up the rate of genetic gain. Use of genomic EBVs for difficult and expensive-to-measure traits, such as meat eating quality, is invaluable. Recorded measurements are needed only in the reference animals used for initial calibrations for the genomic EBVs.

The financial power of genomics has been quantified in a recent press release by Sheep CRC CEO Professor James Rowe. Economic analysis estimated a A$121 million (NZ$130) net present value for adoption and impact on productivity projected over the 2015-29 period. This means a $2.55 (NZ$2.75) return for each dollar spent on genomics by the Sheep CRC, which is conservative according to Rowe because benefits of associated and ongoing genetic improvement are cumulative.

An important reason for increased adoption of this DNA technology, currently delivered by Australian genomics company Neogen with some 50,000 SNP tests for ram breeders in 2018, has been a reduction in the cost of each test from an initial $50 (NZ$54) to $27 (NZ$29.10). Parentage tests using lower density SNP chips are available at less cost again.

Another high impact area for the Sheep CRC has been the use of e-sheep technologies for precision management. The technology relies on radio frequency identification (RFID) eartags in the sheep, which can be recorded by an electronic tag reader. For practical reasons there is also a corresponding visual tag number.

A raft of e-sheep applications has been developed including:

  • Walk-over weighing
  • Auto-drafting
  • Pedigree-matchmaker

Probably the most commonly used application has been walk-over weighing. This simply involves a raceway with weighing scales and a tag reader. Sheep can be either manually moved through the system or left to voluntarily pass over the scales. The latter usually requires an incentive for the sheep, such as moving to a fresh paddock or to access supplementary feed. Most tag readers also record time and date of weighing, with the data able to be downloaded easily to a computer for further processing.

The auto-drafting option has the additional ability of drafting sheep according to pre-set criteria such as particular weight ranges. This can allow for sheep below a certain target weight to be preferentially drafted off to feed supplements. Alternatively, some farmers use the system for decisions on targeted animal health treatments including drenching for internal parasites.

Another application this author was actively involved in was maintenance of ewe body condition during pregnancy by giving lighter ewes access to feed supplements. With the system shown in the photo, manually assisted ewe throughputs were 400 per hour while voluntary walk-over counts were around 300 ewes per day.

The Pedigree Matchmaker option simply involves having a walk-over weighing and recording setup strategically placed in a paddock during the lambing period. As ewes walk over the system followed by their lamb(s) the tag numbers are recorded in sequence so the data can identify lambs belonging to each ewe. This avoids the often disruptive process of manually tagging lambs and recording their mothers in the paddock during lambing.

The relevance of research findings, such as those above regarding application on commercial farms, is sometimes questioned due to the very nature of experimental environments. Results are usually obtained amid intensive recording and sometimes compromising experimental requirements. The Sheep CRC and co-operating state DPIs minimised any disruption, with experienced farm managers over the eight research farms working closely with technical and science staff to make sure management was as close to commercial conditions as possible.

Similarity of reproduction in the IN research flocks to industry standards reflects efforts towards conformity to commercial farming. Ewe conception rate of 72% in the IN with artificial insemination compared well with natural mating on farms. Causes of lamb mortality monitored in the IN flocks during 2007 to 2011 showed that, of the 25,000 lambs born, mortality averaged 21% for Merino ewes and 15% for crossbreds. Autopsies on some 3200 dead lambs revealed dystocia (difficult births) and starvation-mismothering accounted for 72% of deaths. These figures were similar to previously published estimates in both New Zealand and Australia, with the similar recommendation that lamb birth weight for optimum survival was in the 4-8kg range.

In conclusion, it is this author’s opinion, after this rewarding experience with co-operative research, that it is generally more effective and beneficial to farming than the contestable model.

Participating partners add strength by working together towards common outcomes without potential competitive barriers around contestable funding and exclusive intellectual property. It is suggested that application of some elements of the CRC model in our New Zealand research environment would pay dividends.

A summary of the 2001-2019 Sheep CRC and its achievements can be found on