A LEADING sheep geneticist has said using Australian Sheep Breeding Values (ASBVs) is a critical tool for sheep producers to make the best possible decisions regarding their flock genetics.
Speaking at the Kealy family's Curlew Merino stud at Charam in western Victoria as part of Sheep Week, New Zealand-based Mark Ferguson, Nextgen Agri, said there was a misnomer that using data somehow diminished the art of sheep breeding.
"You are simply using what can be a powerful tool to get rid of some of the white noise that comes around regarding your choice of genetics," Dr Ferguson said.
"You get to see the phenotype, which is made up of environment and genetics," he said.
"Often it is really difficult to tell how much of what you are seeing is due to environment and how much is due to genes, ASBVs separate out these effects"
"ASBVs work, and work unbelievably well when they are deployed correctly."
"The trick is to take out the white noise and allow yourself to make the best choices in regards to what you are looking at, to sort the wheat, in this case the genetics, out from the chaff, in this case the environmental factors."
"You might go and see a ram somewhere and he looks big and fantastic but without ASBVs you have no way of telling the true genetic merit of that sheep"
Dr Ferguson encouraged farmers to look beyond just the aesthetics with their choices.
"We need to consider a ram as nothing more than a bag of genes, you're not buying a ram, you're buying genetics that will transfer into your ewe flocks.
"Obviously you want to enjoy the look of the sheep you've got, and you don't want to be breeding sheep with faults, so appearance it is important, but you definitely need to be using the data to make sure the genes you are buying will advance your flock."
Dr Ferguson said livestock producers had to have a clear goal of what they were trying to achieve within their sheep flocks, this needs to ensure that the animal that is selected for is well balanced and well suited to the farm and their management.
"You can't just keep going for fleece weight at the expense of everything else without realising you're going to lower the sheep's fitness and doability.
"The data clearly shows that growing wool isn't free, the condition score versus fleece weight data shows that, you just have to aim for what is right for your own enterprise.
"In some enterprises, with big wether flocks, a high emphasis on wool traits will be important, in others, lamb survival and growth will be more important.
"Having a clear vision and identifying what traits make money for you, in your particular environment, is a key stepping stone to getting things right."
Dr Ferguson said there were a couple of key traits he always looked for.
"For me the keys are eye muscle depth and yearling fat as they are critical drivers for ewe condition score and we know genetics with high genetic condition score are much easier to manage. .
Dr Ferguson said ASBVs were particularly useful for traits that are not so clearly visible.
"Traits like fibre diameter are very heritable and cheap and easy to measure, so ASBVs aren't critical for genetic gain on that front, but for most traits that we are interested in ASBVs dramatically improve your selection accuracy - resulting in a higher rate of genetic gain.
"Often people see genetic selection being about selecting for things that make you more money, but it is just as important to breed for traits that save you money and save you time."
"A great example of these traits is genetic resistance to worms, breeding for less worms can mean much lower costs in drenching as well as healthier sheep."
Tony Kealy of Curlew Merinos, said the use of ASBVs had helped them to breed sheep with better worm resistance.
"In recent years we've got more worm resistant sheep, which means less drenchings."
Mr Kealy also said their flock was also evolving towards plainer sheep with higher fertility rates, both of which have been identified as priorities in terms of management and profitability.
Dr Ferguson said along with breeding for profitability, sheep producers needed to listen to the market.
"You must provide a product the market wants and is willing to pay for.
"It might be you target that high value next-to-skin wool market or particular carcase characteristics but giving the market what they want is something that is going to get more important into the future."
"It will also be increasingly important to the genetics we are choosing enable production systems that consumers can be proud of."