Scanning challenge for sheep farmers

Sheep farmers are being encouraged to make more use of the CT scanning of live lambs, technology which researchers at Scotland’s Rural College (SRUC) have been using successfully for more than two decades.

“These scans, together with growth and ultrasound images taken on farms, allow pedigree breeders to identify the best animals in a flock for breeding,” said SRUC, adding that CT (computer tomography) technology enables farmers to look at the total fat and muscle in live animals, with the ultimate goal of being able to improve lean meat yield.

“Following research analysing spine length and the number of vertebrae across and within different breeds of sheep, scientists have found that for minimal extra expense, producers could increase the size of high-priced loin cuts, alongside selection for breeding goals such growth, total carcass fat and muscle.

“These new measurements have been added to a national sheep breeding programme provided by Signet Breeding Services, part of AHDB.”

Nicola Lambe, a sheep geneticist at SRUC who manages the CT unit, added: “Selection for increased numbers of vertebrae or spine length in the thoracic and/or lumbar regions, would produce more, or thicker, ribs or chops.”

She’s also using CT scans to measure the amount of marbling of fat within the muscles, a factor which contributes to the juiciness and flavour of the meat.

“This second trait, predicting the intramuscular fat percentage (IMF%), has also been added to the national breeding programme, together with another measurement looking at the eye muscle area – the area across the loin,” said SRUC. “This provides a reliable indicator of how much meat will be yielded in a sheep’s carcass.”

In addition, researchers are using images taken from nearly 20,000 sheep scanned over the past 20 years to look at other issues, including studying the link between pelvic dimensions and lambing difficulties.

They’ve also started scanning the neck of Texel sheep, as part of preliminary studies to investigate links between the shape of the larynx and Laryngeal chondritis – a respiratory tract disease.

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