Genetics research to improve ewe longevity

New research funded by EBLEX into the genetics of ewe longevity could benefit the sheep industry in the UK by £4.35 million through reducing culling rates and having a more productive national flock.

Carried out through Scotland’s Rural College (SRUC), the one-year research project aims to find the best way to include the productive lifespan of sheep in breeding evaluations in the UK.

Replacing ewes within the flock is expensive whether they are bought in or homebred. The average replacement rate within the UK flock is 20-25 per cent per year and is affected by many factors, including culling policies on farm and death rates. Finding genetic solutions to increase the productive lifespan of ewes on farm and reduce the number of replacements required will be financially beneficial to commercial farmers, with the economic value of improving flock longevity estimated to be £1-£1.50 per ewe per annum.

Dr Joanne Conington, SRUC Livestock Geneticist, said: “Improving productive lifespan in our sheep flock increases maternal efficiency and reduces greenhouse gas emissions as fewer replacement ewe lambs are required.

Dr Conington, who is leading the research, highlighted that improving aspects of maternal performance is the key to reducing wastage and flock inefficiencies. She said: “By identifying and avoiding the use of under-performing families and strains of sheep, and by highlighting good ‘maternal’ rams for breeding, farmers can better select their breeding stock with the additional breeding tools that it is hoped this project will deliver.”

The research will outline longevity and then determine if it is possible to use existing performance recording datasets to gather information about it. The innovative approach will use the last known lambing event of a ewe to infer information about productive lifespan from national data sets. This methodology is currently being used by Signet to performance record some beef breeds to produce a Lifespan Estimated Breeding Value (EBV)

EBLEX Breeding Specialist Sam Boon is optimistic about the potential applications for this research. He said: “In recent years there has been a massive increase in interest in the recording of maternal breeds and the purchase of Signet recorded rams to breed female replacements. These tools will build on this interest and place greater focus on the efficiency of performance within our sheep flocks.

Initially three breeds, including the Poll Dorset, Lleyn and Texel, will be used because of the large data sets stored by Signet and all cover both maternal and terminal sire breeds.

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