Get involved in Sheep Ireland
I was looking at some old books recently which contained pictures of livestock taken around the mid 1800s. What struck me most was the change in appearance that has occurred in many of the species. Cattle have become more muscular, dairy cows taller and more wedge-shaped towards the hindquarters, and muscle and bone proportions have changed in horses. Of all the farm animals, sheep are the ones that seemed to have changed least.
This tells me that the genetic make up of sheep has remained pretty static. This is further borne out by the fact that sheep farmers in Britain were weaning 600 to 650 lambs per 500 ewes put to the ram in 1900, at a time when there were practically no products to control disease. This country is no different and ewe output has remained unchanged for the past 100 years.
A new sheep-breeding programme, Sheep Ireland, was set up in January last year, yet only around 12pc of pedigree breeders who produce terminal sires participate. The situation is worse in the case of hill and mountain breeders. This is disappointing, as there are so many traits (lamb growth rate, lambing difficulty, lamb mortality, the number of lambs born per ewe, etc) that can be improved.
Granted, some pedigree producers are somewhat suspicious of this new scheme because of their experience with the old Pedigree Sheep Breed Improvement Programme, which delivered very few benefits.
However, the new scheme is very different, using a universally recognised procedure for animal genetic evaluation and also incorporating data from commercial flocks in this evaluation. The genetic improvements that have been achieved in the dairy and pig industries in this country and all over the world use breeding programmes similar to that now being used by Sheep Ireland. The lamb price-rise this year has led to a positivity in the industry, which has not been experienced for years, and sheep farmers are looking at ways to improve incomes.
The positive approach adopted by the Belclare Breed, where all members participate in Sheep Ireland, is encouraging. While there are risks for individual breeders, the only way a breed as a whole can improve is to be fully involved.
The greater the level of participation, the faster the genetic improvement and the higher the data 'accuracy' values (one for all and all for one).
The pedigree sector is really a service sector for the improvement of sheep on commercial farms. Looking at the way most other enterprises are changing, I believe that this sector will still have to supply animals with good visual appearance, but in addition will have to incorporate genetics fit for a purpose if they are to make a worthwhile contribution to the industry.