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DNA testing of sheep pays off

DNA testing not only identifies the breeding potential of individual rams, according to Riverina studmaster Murray Long; he says the benefits of increased certainty in predicting performance of future progeny multiplies dramatically when a preferred genetic profile is applied to teams of rams.

January 21, 2014 4:06am

Murray Long, of Pendarra White Suffolks stud at Ardlethan in NSW, has completely overhauled the structure of his breeding program


DNA testing not only identifies the breeding potential of individual rams, according to Riverina studmaster Murray Long; he says the benefits of increased certainty in predicting performance of future progeny multiplies dramatically when a preferred genetic profile is applied to teams of rams.

Mr Long, of Pendarra White Suffolks stud at Ardlethan in NSW, has positioned himself at the forefront of the genomic revolution taking place within the sheep industry, completely overhauling the structure of his breeding program to exploit the massive benefits available through selecting for specific traits.

He has drastically scaled back his ewes from 800 to 450, to allow him to focus on testing and breeding for meat eating quality.

‘‘People used to worry about how to fit genomics into their flock management, but it’s actually a question of building your management around the benefits DNA testing offers,’’ Mr Long said.

‘‘Genomics is not only a way of getting a better product for my commercial producers and ultimately consumers, but I can use genomics to make my management a lot easier and a lot more streamlined — and that’s really exciting.’’

In applying that knowledge Mr Long said the key was to set clear breeding objectives and select stock according to a consistent genetic profile. The same opportunity applies for his clients when they select rams using objective information, such as DNA-based breeding values and Australian Sheep Breeding Values (ASBVs).

‘‘By selecting a team of rams based on their collective average for specific traits, the average outcome in the progeny will be highly predictable for those traits,’’ Mr Long said.

‘‘And by increasing the certainty of predicting the average trait outcomes in progeny, ram buyers can have greater confidence in achieving increased genetic gain for their flock with respect to the traits of interest.’’

Mr Long plans to DNA test 25 to 30 per cent of his ram lambs each year using the new Cooperative Research Centre for Sheep Industry Innovation (Sheep CRC) 14 k SNP test, in order to obtain more information on hard-to-measure traits and to add accuracy to growth and carcase traits that can be measured later in life.

For example, DNA testing will allow him to profile for worm resistance — something not previously possible due to the low worm populations in his dry farming environment.

As a result of the improved knowledge of his flock, he hopes joining will become a less labour-intensive and time consuming process, freeing up a valuable resource on his property: his time.

Mr Long said his property was set up for cereal cropping with huge paddocks that could sometimes run out of water, so each year he spent countless hours carting water, monitoring flocks and tagging lambs.

‘‘Where I see genomics really assisting in that area is that I’ll be able to join ewes in much larger mobs, make better use of paddock space and make better use of resources such as feed and water,’’ Mr Long said.

‘‘I will still have to go around and check lambs and do tagging but I won’t be so worried about where the parentage lies because I know that the DNA data will sort out any questions in relation to pedigree.’’

During the past 12 months Mr Long only used ram lambs, joining at about nine or 10 months of age, and DNA tested all of them to allow him to make better joining decisions, with positive results.

‘‘Two rams that I had in my team before I received my genomics test results were actually removed, and two that I had initially thrown out were brought back in, purely based on genomic testing, particularly with regards to meat eating quality.’’

Although he has used ram lambs in the past, he always kept a number of older sires to benchmark them against; but he now believes genomics may provide sufficient accuracy and cross-linkages for this to be no longer necessary.

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