Sunday 25 September 2016

Globetrotting ovine 'All Blacks' are valued at €800 per ewe

Published 17/06/2015 | 02:30

The recently imported Sufolk and Texel sheep in Athenry - the widespread use of genomics by New Zealand sheep farmers has helped the country develop an annual rate of genetic improvement that is three times higher the Irish figure. Photo: Ray Ryan
The recently imported Sufolk and Texel sheep in Athenry - the widespread use of genomics by New Zealand sheep farmers has helped the country develop an annual rate of genetic improvement that is three times higher the Irish figure. Photo: Ray Ryan

FARMERS WILL get their first glimpse of the €80,000 Kiwi flock that has been assembled by Teagasc at the Sheep2015 event in Athenry this Saturday.

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The 100 ovine 'All-Blacks' have been selected by Teagasc researchers over the last two years to compare the top New Zealand genetics against the best of their Irish counterparts.

The widespread use of genomics by New Zealand sheep farmers has helped the country develop an annual rate of genetic improvement that is three times the norm here.

"The annual rate of increase in profitability due to genetics in New Zealand is about €1/hd," said Teagasc's Nóirín McHugh, who has played a central role in the project.

"In Ireland, the figure is closer to 30c/hd. Most of the gains are stemming from better growth rates and meat yield," she said.

She said that the best New Zealand flocks were selling 1.8 lambs per ewe, and weaning lambs at 32-35kg from a 100pc grass diet.

"There is a shift in New Zealand where farmers are not as keen to push ewes during the dry period in order to maintain body weights," said Dr McHugh, speaking from New Zealand's South Island city of Dunedin, where she has spent the last six weeks working on sheep research.

However, the Teagasc specialist is hopeful that Irish sheep farmers will be able to rapidly make up the genetic difference between the two countries through the adoption of genomic testing, which will be rolled out as part of a new €1m genomics project over the next two years. She also expects more data from the meat factories on carcase characteristics such as weights and confirmation to also feed into the programme.

"We hope to take DNA samples from 12,000 animals, with the focus on the six main breeds. We are targeting these because they have the minimum number of animals and data to allow us to get this research underway," she said.

Dr McHugh hopes that by the end of the project that farmers will be convinced of the merits of using genomics to start investing in the technology themselves.

She expects results on traits such as scrapie resistance to start flowing from the research next spring.

The predominant breed of the high genetic merit Kiwi flock is a composite breed called Suftex.

"These are very big on the South Island now due to the hybrid vigour between the Suffolk and Texel breeds, which could be adding 20pc to the productivity of the animals," said Dr McHugh.

While researchers were targeting the very best available, EU restrictions on importing scrapie susceptible animals eliminated almost 80pc of the potential candidates.

"We had to scan a lot of sheep to find the right genotypes, with only 20pc proving scrapie resistant," said Dr McHugh, "So we've ended up with animals that are in the top 10-15pc genetic merit in New Zealand. They'll be compared against animals from the top 10pc in Ireland. Again, we were limited in the type of animals that we could include from the Irish flock because they needed to be sired by rams with at least 40pc reliability in their star ratings. But they will all be five-star rated animals," she added.

The main portion of the €800/ewe cost arose from the scanning, 60-day quarantine required, and the shipping costs involved in transporting the animals halfway around the world.

Farmers attending the open day will also be able to hear from Sheep Ireland representatives on the extra profitability that flows from breeding from five-star stock instead of lower genetic animals.

Compared to lambs from one-star ewes, five-star offspring have less lambing difficulty, along with an extra 2kg of body-weight at 40 days of age, and a 2.3kg advantage at weaning.

While the first of the Kiwi sheep arrived in Ireland last summer, it took some of the ewes almost a year to re-programme their fertility cycle to coincide with northern hemisphere seasons.

The project will also look to assess the Irish genetic merit indexes with their equivalents in Britain and France.

"So far we've only looked at how the indexes on some Suffolks here stood up when the numbers were fed into the British and French formulas. But the results were good in that the animals came out with a similar ranking, which would suggest that our formula works and that the genetic merit of Irish sheep are broadly similar to British and French competition," said Dr McHugh.

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