Technology fast-tracking genetic progress

Technology fast-tracking genetic progress


Sheep
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Beechworth woolgrower Stuart Warner is using a range of breeding technologies to fast-track the genetic progress of his family's Merino flock.

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With an emphasis on lamb survival and fertility, Beechworth woolgrower Stuart Warner is using a range of breeding technologies to fast-track the genetic progress of his family's Merino flock.

Mr Warner, along with his parents Graeme and Gwen, and wife Katie, run a mixed farming operation, combining wool, lamb and wine production on their 400-hectare property, Kolonga, in north-east Victoria.

Currently running a self-replacing flock of 1400 ewes, Mr Warner has set some specific objectives for his Merinos.

These include producing a dual-purpose animal which will achieve more than 110 per cent lambs weaned per ewes joined, deliver wether lambs with an 18 kilogram plus carcase weight and ensure ewe lambs weigh more than 50kg at their first joining.

He is also aiming to improve carcase quality, increase fleece weight to more than 5kg a head and produce a quality, white, bright wool while maintaining micron at 18.5-19 micron.

"The focus for us is more than just wool, I want to have 1500 lambs running over summer," he said.

"And a weaning rate of 110pc allows me to have surplus Merino ewe and lambs to sell so I'm not just relying on a wool income."

In 2016, Mr Warner took part in the DNA Flock Profile pilot program carried out by the Cooperative Research Centre for Sheep Industry Innovation which provided new insights into the performance of his sheep.

"The results showed that my commercial flock was performing really well and in the top 20pc of all measured flocks for some of the traits I was interested in such as growth, muscle, and fat," he said.

"But it also highlighted we needed to place more selection emphasis on clean fleece weight."

Based on the DNA testing, Mr Warner has changed the way he looks at his ram selection.

He uses Australian Sheep Breeding Values (ASBVs) as a tool to better-inform his decisions and will not purchase a ram without ASBVs regardless of its quality.

"The Merino rams I am chasing have to be very good for yearling weight, they have to be fast growing sheep, and they need to be positive for both fat and muscle, with more emphasis on muscle," he said.

"Positive fat and muscle is not necessarily just for lamb survivability.

"I find the ewes also do better with these traits genetically built into them, they are more resilient to tough times and more responsive to the feed I put down their throats."

When it comes to ASBVs, Mr Warner wants measurements of +7 or more for yearling weight, +1.2 or more for eye muscle depth more than +1.2, at least +15 for clean fleece weight, +10 for yearling staple length and negative worm egg count.

"It can be challenging to find rams with high clean fleece weight when combined with the other measurements for fat and eye muscle, but they are out there," he said.

A visual appraisal is focused on free-growing wool which can withstand high rainfall conditions and is resistant to fleece rot.

"Resistance to flystrike is also important as I haven't mulesed any sheep since 2007 and I don't want to crutch them continuously," he said.

He has also introduced an artificial insemination (AI) program to access high powered rams from leading studs, including Toland Merinos, to speed the rate of genetic gain in his flock.

A specially-selected group of 200 ewes have been AI'd for the past two years.

For Mr Warner, ewe condition plays a key role in lamb survival and happily admits he is not afraid of supplementary feeding to achieve the best possible outcome.

Summer crops and annual sown pastures such as ryecorn will be also be grown to provide additional feed.

"The sheep are assessed on condition score to determine feed requirements and this will depend on their stage of reproduction," he said.

"The past season has been challenging with high grain prices, but it has always been profitable for us to feed sheep."

The ewes are joined at the end of March to start lambing in mid August.

A tight joining period of four weeks is employed to produce a more even line of lambs.

"Preparation for joining starts when we wean the lambs in early December," he said.

"Ewe condition will be assessed at weaning and they are put into mobs and fed accordingly with condition score three or more the target for joining.

"The supplementary feed supplied will be whatever is the cheapest on a cents per megajoule basis landed on-farm and nine times out of 10 that will be grain whether it is barley, wheat or triticale, it doesn't matter to me."

Shearing occurs during the third week of January and the ewes will be re-assessed and their feed ration adjusted depending on the results.

Roughage may also be introduced in February as paddock feed is generally low by then.

An early adopter of pregnancy testing, all the ewes are scanned for singles and twins and separated about seven weeks prior to lambing so the twin-bearing ewes can be preferentially managed.

Ideally, twin-bearing ewes will lamb in small mob sizes of 80-100 and single ewes in mobs of 150 sheep.

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