Teagasc set to roll out sheep DNA scheme scheme

Genomic selection could be available for the national flock within three years
Genomic selection could be available for the national flock within three years
Darragh McCullough

Darragh McCullough

Momentum is growing to create a national sheep genomics scheme that would increase farm profitability by over €90m over the next decade.

Teagasc researchers hope to roll out the first low-cost DNA tests to sheep breeders this year, but plans are already being discussed at the highest levels to develop a scheme that would subsidise the DNA test for all flocks, similar to the Beef Data and Genomics Programme.

A key part of the initiative would be a ranking system that could compare animals, regardless of breed or pedigree.

"We really need a EuroStar system that allows an across-breed comparison, but it will take another year or two before we have enough data gathered to do that," said Teagasc's top sheep geneticist, Nóirín McHugh.

However, it is the systematic collection of DNA samples across the entire flock that will really accelerate genetic improvement in the national flock, in the same way that has happened in the dairy herd.

"Genomics would increase the annual rate of genetic gain by 350pc to just under €1/lamb per year. That would be a cumulative annual increase of €1.7m above what's being achieved now," said Ms McHugh.

"We hope to have genomic selection available for the national flock within three years. The problem is that a genomic test costs about €30 per lamb, which is just not viable. So we are working on rolling out a cheaper test costing around €10 that would focus on the major genes, such as lethal recessives, scrapie, and prolificacy. Crucially, it would also identify parentage, which would allow us to pin-point the best lines to breed from," she said.

The most recent data from a comparison of over 7,500 progeny from one and five star rams showed that the five-star progeny were 13pc easier lambing, and had a mortality rate that was almost half that of one star progeny. In addition, the number of lambs born from the five star stock was 0.1 lambs higher, and the higher genetic merit lambs were 1kg heavier at slaughter.

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A joint project between Sheep Ireland, UCD and Teagasc has already DNA tested 9,000 animals. This is being used to build databases on key profitability traits.

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