Taking sheep breeding to the next level

I was privileged to attend and speak at the B+LNZ Genetics Sheep Breeders Forum in Napier, New Zealand recently. A gathering of some 150 ram breeders and industry genetics specialists, the forum allowed breeders to share and discuss common issues and concerns, to provide feedback to researchers, and to learn the latest approaches and techniques.

I was impressed by the rapport between the breeders, their advisors and support organisations, and the researchers and others who are working on the deep statistics and next generation advances for the industry. Sheep farming in New Zealand has had challenging times in recent years, with land use change, droughts and other climatic events, and variable market conditions. Despite this, ram breeders seemed in good heart, willing to take on new approaches, and looking forward to further improving their industry.

I was also struck by the way the breeders were looking for signals from markets, processors, and scientists that they could incorporate into their breeding objectives in order to produce the right genetics for their commercial farming customers. There were substantial discussions about resistance to facial eczema and parasites, the appropriate balance of growth rates, mature weight, flavour and fat, and the ability of ewes to retain or rebuild condition and the length of their reproductive contribution to commercial flocks.

For my part, I spoke about what could be considered rather dry material. We are upgrading the database that holds core animal pedigree and performance data to include DNA genotype data, and improving connectivity to other systems with APIs, leveraging the New Zealand Farm Data Standards. We’re also leveraging mobile livestock recording technologies we have developed to help breeders capture data electronically, and to view SIL breeding values for animals, in the field. Information Technology may not be the most exciting thing in the world to a sheep breeder, but the response from breeders was enthusiastic as they reflected on what they could do with updated tools.

You can find out more about the genetics programme at the B+LNZ web site. The B+LNZ Genetics programme brings together Beef+Lamb New Zealand’s previous investments in SIL (Sheep Improvement Limited), Ovita, and the Central Progeny Test into a cohesive programme of R&D. B+LNZ Genetics combines farmers’ investment from levies with co-investment from the Ministry of Business, Innovation, and Employment.