Its many years since stud breeders of jersey bulls, landrace pigs and rhode island red roosters presented their prized stock at the various capital city Royal Shows to assess breeding potential. Today, these industries rely on data & science to identify the best sires to breed for the growing commercial demand for milk, pork and chicken.
Performance recording has replaced show judging.
There is still a role for the show ring, principally for the committed lovers of breeds to showcase their stock. However, the pragmatic farmer of today needs proof or at least confidence that the decisions around sire purchase align with the breeding objectives of their business.
This makes sense, it is not the pampered, prepared and perfumed animal in the show ring that matters; it is the progeny that must perform under commercial conditions that is important. Lipstick on the pig simply won’t do now.
Pork and chicken producers quickly concluded that all commercial producers have similar objectives. Their aim is to breed stock that are healthy and resilient, produce as much meat/eggs as possible, and have efficient feed conversion.
In the pig industry, this led to central breeding sites where the latest technology is implemented to continually improve litter size, litter weaning weight, lean growth rate, feed efficiency, feet and leg soundness and teat number.
The breeding site conducts extensive progeny testing to enable confident prediction of outcome, and to establish if any problems with new strains are evident. This collective approach also aggregates necessary funding.
Admittedly the enhanced use of AI encourages focus on genetic improvement, and the shorter generational turnover of pigs and regular performance reports from the milk vat provide constant feedback on the breeding performance.
The dairy industry has even evolved. The Australian dairy cow now produces twice as much milk per day as its counterpart of twenty years ago, and along with increased pasture production real productivity increases have been achieved.
While progress in the Merino Stud industry is occurring, it is a long way off the pace of dairy, pork & chicken. Prime lambs are also seemingly moving quicker in identifying and using the sires and bloodlines that will provide assured genetic improvement.
Genomics, EBV’s and ASBV’s all rely on performance recording and data analysis. It seems that in the Merino industry equal weight is given to “soft” or non-measured characteristics; that is things that are not directly related to financial returns. At public ram sales, the well-fed rams create an environment where all participants feel the need to fatten rams prior to sale so as not to look out of place, potentially masking other problems.
This tends to diminish the focus on important productivity traits like fleece weight, micron, and reproductive capacity including lamb survival.
Merino studs are the largest influence on the commercial merino industry, providing most of the genetics. The large number and diverse quality of studs is causing a fragmented approach to overall industry improvement. Still, many Merino studs are purchasing sires based on subjective assessment. The industry has a legacy of rams purchased as the “next impact sire” failing to perform and then disappearing when the progeny arrives.
Consideration needs to be made of constructing breeding collectives, where the objectives are clear and agreed, and the scale of the operation allows the appropriate funding to push genetic gain for the designated commercial aspects to be maximised.
Greater certainty of the breeding outcome will encourage more AI & ET use, and with a larger spread of the right “impact” sires, the industry overall will advance at a faster rate.
Can the Merino double production of fleece weight in the next twenty years? Can it lift by 50% lamb survival? Can it produce wether lambs of 20kg CWT at 6-month-old? These could be some of the challenges brought within reach if science and data become the holy grails of Merino breeding.
This article won’t endear me to my many long-term friends and acquaintances in the merino stud industry, to give credit though they are some of the most committed and passionate sheep breeders you could meet, and there are innovators amongst the existing stud masters.
However, the industry has dramatically changed since the heady days of big merino sheep numbers, and by consequence big merino ram sales.
To make Merino Great Again, it’s time we reviewed the method of supplying genetic improvement to the Merino industry. It is a different time; gone are the days when the show ring or the experienced eye was sufficient for selecting future sires. Ram breeding needs a science based approach to compete with the persistent challenges from cropping and prime lamb production for traditional Merino acres.
But most importantly the stud system needs to modernise if the Merino is to find the continuous improvement needed to prosper into the future. To compete with other farming alternatives, Merino sheep will need to embrace the science of genomics to generate the required improvement to retain the wool industries place in rural Australia.