Farm Ireland

Tuesday 23 January 2018

Genetics is the key to profits with sheep

Sheep farmers can learn some profitable lessons from research in the dairy and beef sectors

Heave: Oran Conry (11) gives his uncle Thomas Kenny, from Ballinasloe, Co Galway some help to get a stubborn sheep to the show ring at Sheep2015
Heave: Oran Conry (11) gives his uncle Thomas Kenny, from Ballinasloe, Co Galway some help to get a stubborn sheep to the show ring at Sheep2015
Louise Hogan

Louise Hogan

The move towards the new much-touted 'post-quota' era has meant there has been plenty of attention lavished on the dairy sector in recent years.

Yet many of the Teagasc researchers at last weekend's Sheep2015 event Athenry were busy highlighting that much of the same research channelled towards improving the the dairy herd can also be adopted to deliver more profitability for the sheep sector.

Key areas such as genetics and grassland management, were centre-stage.

A prime attraction was the €80,000 New Zealand Suffolk and Texel flock imported to demonstrate the increased profitability driven by genetics in the Kiwi flock.

Elsewhere, Sheep Ireland, an offshoot of the ICBF, was highlighting the EuroStar statistics showing increased profitability from five star stock which have increased lambing ease and better kill out rates.

Teagasc genetics expert Donagh Berry says that genetics holds the key for sheep farmers looking to maximise the profitability of their flocks.

"The benefits are there already if you look at a five star verses a one star, on average you do see that the five star is better," he said.

However, he readily pointed out that the star system was in its relative infancy compared with dairying.

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"With the dairying we introduced genomic selection based on DNA - that almost doubled the reliability by which we could identify that is the best bull or best cow.

"That is what it boils down to at the end of the day, especially with a ram breeder. You may only buy one ram if you are a small sheep person."

Dr Berry pointed out the DNA technology has been worth €750m to the dairy sector since 2001.

A €1m Ovigen genomics project has been launched with researchers currently travelling around the country collecting 12,000 ear punch samples from flocks in Sheep Ireland to create a DNA profile for all the key traits.

He pointed out that they'll be able to test a lamb and tell by the time it is a month old with a "higher degree of accuracy" if it will be a good ram, delivering good progeny.

"It sounds a bit 'science-fictiony' but that is what we've done with dairying," he added.

He pointed out that the dairy sector went through the same issues 15 years ago with some feeling the index was not delivering.

"Now you can't sell a low EBI animal anymore," he said.

"We're in the same position as we were 15 years ago in dairying. Everyone is giving out about the indexes."

Eamon Wall of Sheep Ireland said they were now performance recording around 7,500 commercial ewes, with 600 pedigree ram breeders involved in performance recording in LambPlus.

Pedigree breeders

"A lot of commercial farmers say to us that pedigree breeders are going to send us the data that they think we want them to send us to try and get good evaluations so that is why the commercial data is so important as it is unbiased," he said.

He said there was some scepticism of it among farmers, with moves underway to coordinate with British authorities as English rams brought in currently start on a "blank canvas" despite high performance records in the UK.

One of the event organisers, Frank Hynes of Teagasc, said they were pleased with the interest in the event.

He highlighted the key areas that sheep farmers need to concentrate on include grassland management, breeding and improving output.

"When you put that information together it has a large contribution to make to farmers lives and the future of sheep farming," said Mr Hynes.

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