Information nucleus flock and sheep genetic resource flock

Page last updated: Thursday, 3 May 2018 - 10:14am

The information nucleus flock was established by the Sheep Cooperative Research Centre in 2007 to transform wool and meat production of the Australian sheep industry to develop more accurate breeding values for production traits and identify DNA markers that are correlated to production traits.

The information nucleus flock has been transformed into the sheep genetic resource flock and is now funded by Meat and Livestock Australia. This flock will continue to develop new genetic technologies to improve breeding technologies for the Australian sheep industry.

Background

The CRC for Sheep Industry Innovation was established in 2007. Its cornerstone project was the information nucleus flock (INF). Eight sites were set up in key sheep production environments around Australia. One of the largest sites is near Katanning at Great Southern Agricultural Research Institute (GSARI) in Western Australia. Other sites were at Struan and Turrettfield in South Australia, Hamilton and Rutherglen in Victoria and Trangie, Cowra and Armidale in New South Wales. Each year 5000 ewes were artificially inseminated with semen from 100 industry sires. The sires represent terminal, maternal and Merino breeds. GSARI is one of the larger sites with 1000 ewes.

The Sheep CRC had made a significant contribution to educate the next generation of livestock scientists in their postgraduate program. More than 30 students have utilised data generated by the INF in their post graduate studies and continues to do so. These young people will continue to shape the future of the sheep industry. The science that has been delivered have and will provide ongoing benefits to industry.

The Sheep CRC and the INF are now in wind down mode. Meat and Livestock Australia and other industry stakeholders have agreed to continue funding a resource flock. The current sheep genetics resource flock has emerged from this.

Genetic resource flock

The current genetic resource flock (GRF) project consists of two flocks, one in Katanning in WA and one in New South Wales near Armidate. Both flocks are used to progeny test industry sires and that are also trait leaders for a variety of meat production traits.

Approximately 1000 ewes are inseminated with semen from about 100 industry sires at both sites. The lambs are tagged with an electronic identification number at birth and mothered up with its dam. This technology has made it possible to collect much more data faster and more accurately on individual animals. All lambs that are stillborn are also recorded as lamb mortality is the greatest point of inefficiency in the sheep production systems. Learning why lambs die is an important step in understanding lamb deaths and more importantly how to address that problem.

More visual and growth performance data are collected at marking and at weaning. Soon after weaning the lambs are allocated to one of three management groups, but all lambs are destined for slaughter. A wealth of data is recorded prior and at slaughter. This included the regular body weights and condition scores for each lamb. It also included less routine data such as worm egg counts, scanning for eye muscle and fat on live sheep.

Carcass traits are measured after slaughter, as well as meat samples which are tested for a wide range of meat quality traits that may impact on consumer preferences. All the data are stored in a central database managed by Sheep Genetics. Because Sheep Genetics also uses information from relatives, the data influences the values and accuracy of sheep related to the sire. In this way rams that contribute semen to the GRF have a much wider influence on ASBV than just their own. This has seen significant improvements in the accuracy of ASBV of sires especially for traits such as carcass and meat quality traits that are difficult to measure on live animals.

Blood is one of the most important samples collected from each lamb and is used to extract DNA. The DNA results are being used to develop tools to identify useful information about individual sheep. A major focus for the GRF have been developing genomic breeding values. This project is well under way and has the potential to reduce the cost and improve the accuracy of identifying superior breeding animals for Australia’s future sheep flock at a younger age. At present sheep DNA are tested using a 15K SNP (single nucleotide polymorphism) genotyping test, which includes pedigree information and the poll/horn status of the lamb. The technology has improve dramatically and are used to estimate a genomic breeding value for traits that are too difficult or expensive to obtain in other ways. This GRF project will continue to benchmark key industry sires through progeny testing. That will continue to have direct benefits to industry through Sheep Genetics.

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