Breeding accurately for wool and meat

Alex Safari
Dr Alex Safari, whose research is helping to make Merino breeding more accurate.

A massive number crunching exercise has for the first time provided Australia’s Merino sheep breeders with the confidence they need to accurately breed sheep for several production traits.

Fourteen production characteristics were analysed from more than 110,000 sheep records gathered over 30 years.

A key finding is that there are no major antagonisms between breeding for wool and meat in Merinos, meaning that breeders should be able to improve both characteristics using an appropriate selection index.

The study, led by NSW Department of Primary Industries research scientists, combined data from seven Australian Merino research flocks across Australia including three owned by NSW DPI.

NSW DPI’s Dr Alex Safari said that until this study was undertaken, accurate estimates of genetic correlations among most production traits were not available.

There was little information about the correlations between genes for:

  • wool, with carcase, reproduction and feed intake
  • growth, with carcase, reproduction and feed intake and
  • within carcase traits.

“Earlier work showed there were huge gaps in information about the impact of breeding for some specific groups of traits”, Dr Safari said.

“The good news is that we can now develop more complex and diverse breeding objectives with increased certainty of outcome.

“This is particular important when it comes breeding Merinos for both meat and wool in the current very difficult production and economic environment.”

Sheep Genetics Australia (SGA) is already incorporating the genetic correlations relating to growth, reproduction and wool into their genetic evaluation systems.

Dr Safari said relationships are now being investigated between carcase and meat quality traits and all other production traits, within carcase and meat quality traits and between feed intake and other production traits.

The research was undertaken in conjunction with the Australian Sheep Cooperative Research Centre (CRC), CSIRO, University of New England and South Australian and West Australian state government departments.

Findings from this major study of 110,000 records were reported recently in international scientific journals.