Farm Ireland

Wednesday 21 March 2018

¤urostar-style plan can greatly benefit Ireland's sheep breeders

John Shirley

I have always found sheep farmers to be among the more civil and tolerant sectors of the farm population. Like the creatures they care for, sheep farmers just get on with the business of living.

I was reminded of this last week when attending a think-in on sheep breeding in Tullamore organised by Sheep Ireland. Sheep Ireland was established three years ago by the Irish Cattle Breeding Federation (ICBF) and is the body charged with the responsibility for sheep breed improvement in Ireland.

Breeding and genetics in any sector is a potential powder keg. Similar ICBF meetings with cattle breeders over the years could generate plenty of heat, but last week's meeting with the sheep sector was quite civilised. There was only slight unease when sheep farmers were told that they will have to put their hands in their pockets to help pay for the national sheep breeding programme in the future. Maybe the higher sheep prices have mellowed the industry. Maybe the right breeders weren't there to get a row going.

The meeting, organised by the ICBF and chaired by chief executive Dr Brian Wickham, reviewed Sheep Ireland's progress to date and made proposals for the future.

As always, money is central.

Three years ago, the Department of Agriculture handed over the sheep breeding role to the ICBF and Sheep Ireland. Since then, the Department continued to fund the running and development cost of Sheep Ireland. This amounted to €176,000 in 2008, €903,000 in 2009, €862,000 last year and €700,000 this year.

Even if the Department wanted to continue 100pc funding in these straitened times, it could not do so because of EU competition law on State aid, the meeting was told. However, there is no question of the Department totally pulling out of sheep breeding support, according to its representative on the Sheep Ireland board, Dermot Ryan.

He hinted that the Department could continue to support 70pc of the funding without raising EU objections.

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The search is now on to bridge the potential funding gap. Levy, of some ilk, here we come!

Dr Wickham proposed a new structure for the Sheep Ireland board and potential new funding could follow from this. Currently, the board is made up of pedigree breeders, the Department of Agriculture and farm organisations. He proposed that the board be expanded to include commercial sheep farmers and lamb processors. He suggested that the board's chairman should be a farmer, on the grounds that the ICBF's cattle breeding prowess really got going under its farmer chairmanship.

Sheepmeat processors are a vital cog in the breeding apparatus, in that they can relay back market signals on carcass quality, are a source of carcass grading data and can collect a levy for supporting sheep breeding, should agreement be reached on such an instrument.

Interestingly, Dr Wickham justified the continued investment by the Irish taxpayer in sheep breeding on the grounds that it will be future generations who will benefit from having genetically superior sheep in Ireland.

Overall, Sheep Ireland has been able to piggyback enormously on the ICBF's pioneering development in cattle breeding and the computer software in the cattle data base.

Sean Coughlan, the man credited with sorting out a lot of the ICBF's data processing glitches in the earlier cattle breeding days, was confident of Sheep Ireland's capability to operate a Breed Flockbook and supply sales catalogues, certificates, etc. Adding the sheep data to the cattle system only tickles its back, he said.

Mr Coughlan also admitted to the sheep meeting that the ICBF made mistakes while building its cattle breeding programme. I don't ever remember similar confessions being expressed by Dr Wickham.

Sheep Ireland has embarked on a programme of trait measurement that is in tune with commercial sheep farmers. Along with production and growth, the new programme is assessing maternal traits such as ease of lambing, lamb survival, lamb growth as a measure of milk yield and mature ewe weight. Health traits such as footrot and worm egg counts are also assessed.

The cost of data collection is minimised by using handheld electronic ID readers and sponsoring flockowners to do much of the recording.

The breeding programme includes:

•Lamb Plus for pedigree breeding flocks -- 211 breeders producing 4,200 rams annually have signed up for this.

•MALP (maternal lamb producer) flocks in which the maternal traits of daughters of rams from Lamb Plus flocks are assessed -- there are about 30 commercial flocks and 3,250 ewes taking part in MALP. DNA tests are used to match progeny to rams.

•CPT (central progeny test) flocks. Four flocks with more than 2,000 ewes are carrying out detailed assessment of rams from Lamb Plus, primarily for production traits and to establish linkages between rams.

When it comes to expressing genetic merit in rams, Sheep Ireland has copied the ¤urostar approach that has proven successful in cattle. Sheep in the top 20pc for a trait get five stars. Those in the bottom 20pc get one star. Also, the genetic merit is expressed in cash terms for each sub index. For instance, a ram with a sub index of €0.50 for production is expected to breed lambs which are €0.50/hd more profitable than the average for breed. The breed average is based on the rams born in 2005.

For the moment, comparisons and ¤urostars are confined to each breed, but the plan is to have an across-breed regime once enough linkages are established.

The Sheep Ireland programme should be welcomed by commercial farmers who desperately need sheep which leave more profit with less work. To date, the pedigree breeders who believe in delivering this type of genetics are enlisting for Lamb Plus recording.

There is still a large sheep breeding sector which is dedicated to showring traits and for whom the showring and its system of mutual breeder support delivers some headline grabbing prices.

It would be of great interest to have the progeny of these rams assessed in a commercial environment, especially for the viability traits. My intuition is that the showring traits which bring rosettes, such as large heads and bone, are actually damaging the breed. The direction and traits being chased by Sheep Ireland will put more money in commercial flockowners' pockets.

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