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Genomics for farmers

Prior to the arrival of this new tool we call genomics, assessing the genetic merit of animals required a multi-generational pedigree of parentage information plus accurate recording of performance throughout all the family connections.

The data this generated is then analysed using a combination of statistical tools and scientifically validated calculations. This output is then combined with economic information, to produce Economic Values and Estimated Breeding Values. All this now comes together in the NZ Terminal and Maternal Worth Indexes.

This process has always been the home of the NZ stud breeding industry assisted by their various breed societies, bureaus, genetic advisers and, of critical importance, the SIL database managed under the auspices of Beef + Lamb NZ and Beef + Lamb New Zealand Genetics.

Over the last couple of decades, a new era of assessment has been developing. Initially DNA testing was used as a way of establishing parentage, but this capability has moved on greatly. There’s been a huge increase in what it can do and a huge decrease in the cost of doing it. What the researchers have been working on is to match up patterns in the DNA which consistently match some particular aspect of performance – the so-called DNA markers. This is genomics. It is still not a replacement for the diligent recording work of dedicated breeders, but it does offer a new way to screen animals for desirable traits – particularly as an animal can be tested very young and before it has had a chance to actually show the trait you are wanting to look for.

So, what has this got to do with commercial sheep farmers?

The cost per test has come down to around $43 per animal. This means that for a cost of around $2500-3500 a farmer can test enough animals in a flock to get an accurate genomic prediction of overall generic merit, plus the genetic merit for all the sub-indexes that a farmer may be particularly interested in such as fertility, weaning weight, growth rate, parasite resistance etc. You will be able to see an estimate of how your flock scores for Maternal worth and if you test different age groups you will be able to see some degree of trend. How does your flock compare to the NZ average? Are you making progress in the areas you want to, using the rams you have been buying? Could you make better progress and income by improved ram selection from your existing breeder or should you consider changing breeders?

Two main things limit your sheep flock performance – your management which includes feeding and disease control, and, the genetic potential of your animals. The first of these has to deal with all the challenges that nature provides – but why not take control off making sure the second factor is not limiting?

There is a serious amount of money available to farmers from tapping in to the best genetics they can access. AbacusBio has calculated gains of over $60,000 pa being achieved by a 3000-ewe flock by using top 20% merit maternal and terminal sires for a flock starting from an above average baseline. The actual gains depend on what your starting point is and how well you can harness the potential. The gains don’t come from one thing – they come from accumulated gains over many factors such as; more lambs born, higher lamb survival, heavier weaning weights from both ewe effects and lamb effects, higher post weaning growth rates, higher meat yielding carcasses, earlier sales of lambs creating more autumn feed for other stock, fewer light store sales in difficult seasons.

AbacusBio have created a genetics workshop for farmer groups and a specialist genetics advisory package for individual farmers that will take you through the process of assessing your flock, understanding what it all means, and working out what to do next. These packages will also be available through RMPP groups. Click here to read more. If you would like to discuss, please contact Sharl Liebergreen at AbacusBio (sliebergreen@abacusbio.co.nz) or 021 522 999.