“An Ounce of Breeding is worth a Tonne of Feeding”
Improvements in breeding or genetics is one of the most powerful tools available to any farmer involved in animal production. Many variables can affect such enterprises each year, weather, price volatility, input costs, etc, but if a farm has invested in better genetics they will always reap the benefits of this, in good times or in bad. Once delivered, genetic improvement will remain forever and can be built on further in following years. Farmers can benefit from genetic improvement without even knowing about it – by buying a ram from a ram breeder actively engaged in genetic improvement, a farmer will bring better genetics into their flock whether they were looking to do so or not.
‘An ounce of breeding is worth a tonne of feeding’ is an adage often used by farmers interested in animal breeding. Its true! Genetic improvement sounds scary to many sheep farmers, its actually something farmers have done for generations without even knowing it. Each time a sheep farmer selects a breeding ram to purchase, or a female to retain as a breeding animal, there are reasons behind these selection decisions. For most it’s the look of the animal, its size, length, etc. Selecting on these visual traits will in turn, promote these traits – so in time the farmers sheep will eventually get bigger and longer. Unfortunately, the traits which are most influential in terms of increasing efficiency and profitability on sheep farms are impossible to select by eye.
Take a trait like NLB (number of lambs born per ewe). This is one of the main drivers of profitability on all sheep farms. The Irish industry as a whole has made no progress on this trait for the past 40 years, remaining static at 1.3 lambs reared per ewe per year. The reason is simple, this is a trait that cannot be assessed by eye in advance of each breeding season (Autumn). To improve this trait requires the collection of data over a period of time and then using this data make breeding/culling decisions. The same process is required for other ‘invisible’ traits.
The OviData EIP-Agri project aims to bring Irish commercial sheep breeding into the next generation. It sets out to collect performance data on Irish sheep enterprises (across 1,500 ewes) and assign parentage to all lambs born through DNA (genomics). Assigning parentage is a critical step as it unlocks the maximum value from the performance records collected on individual sheep. Without parentage information these performance records would be of far less value. Yes, they would tell us how an individual is performing, but big gains can only be made by assessing performance at a bloodline/family level. DNA also allows us to identify the sire of lambs born, an impossible task for most sheep farmers who use a ‘team’ of rams to protect against possible fertility issues. Knowing lamb sires is incredibly valuable. When combined with performance data we can identify the top and bottom performers very easily.
Year one has passed for OviData and we’ve collected huge amounts of data, assigned parentage to over 2,500 lambs, identified lots of ‘superstar’ performers which can now be promoted within our project flocks and identified some rams that failed to impregnate any ewes at all – all of which we would be blissfully unaware of without the project. We hope to build a model that can be followed by other farmers in the future!
Eamon Wall leads up the OviData EIP-Agri project and is the former lead of Irelands sheep breed improvement programme run by Sheep Ireland. This programme has grown rapidly since it began in 2009 and Irish sheep farmers can now use the information generated by Sheep Ireland to boost farm profitability by using the best sheep genetics available. Eamon also farms part-time on his sheep and suckler farm in Co. Waterford so is well placed to identify the current day challenges facing Irish farmers.
If you are interested in writing a guest blog post on the topic of EIP-AGRI, Farm Viability or LEADER to be featured on the National Rural Network website and various social media pages, please email Dr Shane Conway, Researcher at NUI Galway and with the NRN for more details: firstname.lastname@example.org
The NRN are always looking to highlight and promote innovative initiatives that will help inspire people in the farming community and in rural areas to maximize the success of the objectives set out in the Rural Development Programme 2014-2020.