Sheep Improvement Making Strides

Sheep Improvement Making Strides

Sheep Industry News Contributor

The National Sheep Improvement Program, started in 1986 to improve sheep genetics, has moved beyond the 1980s version, Reid Redden, NSIP chairman, told the Genetic Stakeholders Committee in Charleston.

In 2010, NSIP transitioned to the Lamb- Plan, a subset of sheep genetics in Australia with 1,000 flocks and 3 million sheep, said Redden, extension sheep specialist with North Dakota State University. The U.S. NSIP has 150 breeders and 10,000 sheep, and Redden said it really needs to grow exponentially.

“Today, NSIP is not perfect, but it is functional,” he said. “It can help us smooth the disruptions between seedstock producers and the commercial industry.”

Redden said his vision is to increase awareness and education of NSIP with an improved website, magazines articles, social media and through breed associations, at the same time making technical improvements with reports, elite summaries, reproduction traits and indexes.

“We may not be able to improve numbers (with NSIP), but we can increase lamb production,” he said.

Rodney Kott, retired sheep researcher with Montana State University, said the sheep industry has been slow to adopt new genetic selection technologies, although it has succeeded in getting bigger size, which means more lamb marketed.

Kott explained the odds of selecting a good ram.

“Visual inspection moves the needle in a direction that improves your odds,” he said. “Individual records move the needle a little more. Using the records of an animal’s relatives moves the needle still more and really increases your odds.”

David Notter, a retired sheep researcher with Virginia Tech, discussed how to breed or select terminal sires to improve lambs marketed in a value-based system. The key, he said, is defining value and deciding how measure it, then pinpointing the reasons for price discrimination and how to implement pricing.

Notter said the industry has opportunities to use genetics to its advantage, but it needs more information and better communication about what constitutes the “right” kind of genetics.

Mark Boggess, national program leader for food animal production at USDA-ARS, observed that the dairy, beef and swine industries are c onv i n c e d that they can’t compete without using expected breeding values, or EBVs. But he said the sheep industry has been slow to take advantage of EBVs.

“This stuff adds value,” he said, “and examples are needed to show how.”

Dan Morrical, Genetic Stakeholders Committee chair, said that EBVs alone are not the answer.

“But I know we’re not going to get better without using technology,” he said.

Kott agreed. “There’s a lot of data in NSIP and it can be confusing, but it will give you an edge to get better.”

Kreg Leymaster, USDA-ARS U.S. Meat Animal Research Center, shared results from a cooperative breeding scheme as a way to make genetic improvements.

“In a cooperative breeding scheme, producers pool their resources to increase the rate of genetic gains and produce their own replacement rams,” Leymaster said.

For such a scheme to work, he said, producers must agree on a common selection objective and use mating designed to create strong genetic linkages.

In 2009, five Polypay producers from Minnesota, Ohio, Illinois and Iowa, with just over 300 ewes, formed the Mount Rushmore Consortium. (A sixth producer was added later.) Their objective was to improve maternal performance using genetic technology and pooling resources, and they developed an annual rotation plan of sire lines with random mating assignments.

Now, said Leymaster, the strong genetic linkage has essentially created a single flock, with traits better than the average of Polypay sheep on NSIP.

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