The reads DNA flock profile innovators
Breaking down a perception-driven market with objective genetic data was the impetus for sheep breeders Andrew and Barbara Read to conceive an idea which has now been realised in the form of the Sheep CRC’s DNA Flock Profile test.
The Reads, from “Oak Hills”, Nangus, NSW, first approached Sheep CRC chief executive James Rowe at a producer field day with the idea of developing a DNA test to profile the genetic merit of a commercial ewe flock.
“We had been buying high index Merino rams in the top 5% bracket, but it became clear that there was no way to market the quality of their progeny to other people,” Mr Read said.
“The store markets were operating on reputation and hearsay and wishful thinking, and we found that people didn’t chase our stock because we were new players. And as a buyer on the store market I had found how flukey it was to get stock of verifiable genetic quality.
“With all of those vagaries, we simply put two and two together and said to the CRC, ‘If you can DNA test rams, why can’t you test a commercial ewe flock as well so we can verify in the market place the quality of our stock?’”
The Cooperative Research Centre for Sheep Industry Innovation (Sheep CRC), operates as part of the Federal Department of Industry, Innovation and Science’s CRC program. It is a collaboration of more than 40 organisations from across industry, government and the commercial sector, and includes producer groups, farm advisers, universities and research organisations, meat processors and retailers.
It has developed a range of DNA tests to drive faster and more affordable genetic improvement, with the DNA Flock Profiler its most recent product. It is currently in the final stages of field trials ahead of an anticipated full commercial release to Merino breeders in 2017.
The Flock Profiler prediction involves randomly sampling 20 young ewes for DNA testing. By identifying genetic linkages with animals of known breeding values from the Information Nucleus database, the Flock Profiling Test will provide commercial producers with a prediction of their flock’s average breeding values scaled to Australian Sheep Breeding Values (ASBVs) for major Merino traits, such as yearling weight, fleece weight and fibre diameter and well as the indexes for Fibre Production, Merino Production and Dual Purpose.
“I believe the genomic breeding values generated by the Flock Profile test will provide authentication of breeding claims by commercial producers which is an entirely new thing, only previously obtainable in long relationship business connections,” Mr Read said.
He hopes the influence of DNA testing will be felt not just in store markets, but flow right through the supply chain to the consumer with breeders to be rewarded for selecting for traits like meat eating quality.
Mr Read spent his working life in a range of farm-related jobs, while his wife holds a doctorate in genetic biology and worked in barley breeding – a background which came in useful when selecting the right genetics to improve their flock.
The couple, now in their 70s, retired 16 years ago to a 580-hectare block with only basic infrastructure, with the goal of running a 1200 ewe self-replacing flock. They have since put 250ha into environmental stewardship, and run around 850 ewes plus followers, as well as backgrounding weaner cattle over winter/spring.
Their lambing percent has been as high as 120% but in 2016 it was only 103% due to the extreme windy and wet weather over the lambing period.
“We try for a compressed spring lambing with a short single oestrous cycle joining of 20 days. We cull dry ewes and try to sell our wether lambs off their mothers, weaned and started on hay and grain at about 28kg,” Mr Read said.
“Due to the challenges of the seasons over the last 10 years there has been minimal culling of the ewe flock, meaning we have made most of our progress via ram selection. In particular we are seeking a lighter earlier maturing ewe so, in addition to wool characteristics, we have been looking at body weight and fat cover.
“Genetically our ewes seem to be running about four years behind the trajectory established for yearling weight (YWT) and fleece weight (YCFW) by CentrePlus, which has been our main ram source. This is to be expected as it takes time for genetic improvement to flow through the age structure of the flock.”
The Reads were among the first producers to trial the Flock Profile DNA test, with their detailed records of all rams purchased over the last 10 years, including their ASBVs and what years they were used, being useful in verifying the accuracy of the genomic predictions generated by the test.
“Although we have those ram team records, what we didn’t know was which rams had been most active and exerted the most influence on our flock and if you don’t know your starting point it’s hard to select the rams you need to go forward,” Mr Read said.
This history of selecting animals using ASBVs and exerting selection pressure on the traits most important to their business showed through in the Flock Profile results, which placed their sheep in the top 15% of the Dual Purpose Index database.
“I feel that for a commercial flock to have arrived at the 15th percentile for DP after at most 10 years of focussed breeding is not too bad,” he said. “It will be interesting to see where other commercial flocks come in.”
“It does take some work to record your ram teams but the new ram team manager feature on RamSelect Plus makes that process quite simple. Most commercial flocks don’t seem to have ram history readily available so the genomic breeding values generated by the Flock Profile test will provide a valuable starting benchmark for an upgrade program.”
Mr Read said it was vital for the Merino industry to embrace innovation if it wanted to succeed.
“I think there’s a lot of things in the Merino industry that should be happening but aren’t – compared to the grains industry, where I started farming, the pace of innovation has been much slower,” Mr Read said.
“I’m in my 70s and as a farmer I need innovations. I want to keep going and keep improving; what the CRC is doing for the sheep industry might be compared to what CIMMYT and Wagga Agricultural Research Institute started for the wheat industry in the 1970s – they’re helping the industry move into a whole new era and doing a fantastic job of it.
“I’m particularly impressed that the CRC listened to an idea for flock profiling, assessed it, and had it up and running so quickly.”