Making genetics sexy

Farmers often forget that wherever their ram breeder goes, they will go too. Dayanne Almeida writes.

In Livestock4 Minutes

Once a year, farmers make the most critical decision to maximise genetic progress in their flock. The rams they use will contribute about 80% of our flock’s genetic gain.

Farmers often forget that wherever their ram breeder goes, they will go too. It is such a key message to make farmers realise how important genetics are in their farm business.

Being out there engaging with commercial and stud breeders for the last couple of years has led me to believe we do need to make genetics ‘sexy’ again.

It starts with providing farmers with the right tools to feel comfortable talking about genetics, confident to ask the right questions to their ram breeders, to their stock agents, to their partners, and to become the main drivers of progress and change. New Zealand has Sheep Improvement Limited, the world-renowned sheep performance recording database and genetic evaluation system. If a ram breeder’s flock is in SIL, they are performance recording and utilising SIL genetic evaluation to help select genetically superior animals.

Onfarm measurements (commonly referred to as actuals or raw data), are not always a good indicator of genetic merit for a trait as there is a lot of environmental ‘noise’ preventing us from seeing what will actually be passed on to the progeny.

Commercial farmers checking the SIL ‘figures’ of sale rams at Wairere Rams.

SIL genetic evaluation tools are used to estimate the genetic merit of an animal by correcting for known environmental effects such as date of birth (born early or born late), birth rank (single, twin or triplet), born from a hogget or a mixed age ewe, or being fed crops as opposed to grass.

SIL uses pedigree information to look how well relatives (parents, grand-parents, half or full siblings and progeny when available) have performed. It also considers performance in other traits and takes into account the extent to which each trait is inherited, often mentioned as heritability. All of this increases the accuracy of prediction, aka ‘trust’, of the estimated genetic merit.

In the end, SIL processes all information available and the result is a “best-bet” of the animal genetic merit for each trait. It is what we call an estimated breeding value, often called ‘figures’. They are a great tool to help find which rams are carrying the best genes to pass on to the flock.

When ‘figures’ are combined for related traits such as growth, reproduction and disease resistance, a goal trait group is created and SIL produces selection indexes of economic merit to simplify the selection of genetically superior animals. Overall selection indexes rank rams genetically for specific production systems or markets using a single selection goal – profit per ewe mated.

Good figures don’t necessarily make a good ram, but a good ram has to have good figures. SIL is a tool to aid selection.

The rule of thumb is ‘looks’ are what make you happy and ‘figures’ are what make you money. It is important to always look for a well-balanced animal.

Empowering commercial farmers to question or feel they can trust their ram breeders should always be top priority. We just need to get over the jargon and invest time to make more informed decisions. After all, poor ram buying choices will still be haunting us 10 years down the track and they are costly too.

  • Supplied by Zoetis Genetics.