I have had quite an interesting journey over the last year – having been closely involved with the sheep industry for so long it was easy to forget that outsiders have little idea of how their tasty lamb or comfortable wool jumper magically makes it into their hands.
One of the toughest things to explain to somebody who has never been involved with livestock is the breeding process. How sires are selected and why, and why the broader industry must focus exclusively on sire pedigree to make any practical progress. It is always fun when the little light bulb goes on over their head when you explain why a male can have so many offspring in a single year. Thinking about animal sexual reproduction makes people uncomfortable I suppose.
Ewes as the driver of productivity
While explaining these things to outsiders it did become increasingly apparent that this concentration on sire performance leaves a lot of unknowns. The real drivers of profit in any sheep enterprises are breeding ewes – they are the factories of our farms and their performance with respect to fertility and mothering ability will always dictate how successful you are.
With this in mind you’re probably going to groan at the idea of adding another load of expensive and time consuming measurements to your schedule. You might have heard that pregnancy scanning is unreliable, that mothering data is hard to manage and that the future of breeding values based on mothering is in an early state. Well, forget all that.
There is an old saying – “if you don’t measure what you’re making, how will you know when you have it made?”. The very same reason that you are currently performance recording relatively easy things like body weights and fleece weights is the same reason you should be recording the daughters of your sires: it will make you money, it will reduce your risks and it will give you confidence when selecting sires for joining. It’s also useful information to have even if you aren’t using it to generate breeding values.
If you’re a large commercial breeder the equation does change somewhat – it’s currently not practical to mother up for a lot operations. However, that doesn’t mean you can rely on a breeding value for a maternal trait on a sire if nobody has bothered measuring his daughters. Ask your stud breeder whether those sires have mothering and pregnancy scanning information being recorded. No measurements generally result in low accuracy breeding values. If you genuinely want to know accurate breeding values for Number of Lambs Weaned, somebody has got to do the mothering up on a sire’s daughters and siblings and record his mother. Sires all carry genes to influence fertility and mothering ability that will only be expressed in their female offspring.
This brings me to an issue which is going to become much more important in the next few years: an increasing focus on animal ethics by consumers. The recent debate over mulesing will be the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the next generation of fibre and sheep meat consumers. In a digitally interconnected world the information that they will demand on the source of their products will only increase. Attention will inevitably be drawn to issues like lamb survival (which has a large genetic component). Making progress on these concerns could be the difference between your own business surviving or thriving.
A quick primer to entering information on mothering
Mothering information required by Sheep Genetics covers four broad time based categories: Pre-join information, the actual joining data itself, information gathered during gestation and the outcomes of that joining.
Thanks to programs like “Making more from sheep”, we all know the importance of getting your breeding ewes into good shape before joining. In terms of recording information, most livestock software should be able to keep a pre-join ewe weight and a condition score. The mating group should be recorded at this time to be carried through to the outcome stage.
Joining data consists of the type of joining (AI or natural for example), a record of the sire involved and also records of whether fertility treatments were used on the ewes. For a natural joining, the ram in and ram out date are important, along with any details of a backup ram used and the dates he was available to the group.
Any pregnancy scanning done should be recorded under this time period. The scanning date, scanning operator, whether the ewe was wet or dry (or hopefully an embryo count instead) and whether the animals scanned with multiple embryos were fed extra.
The outcomes are simply the number of lambs that resulted (or didn’t result) from the joining process. It’s an important place to record dead at birth animals that may not have received a tag.
This information can be recorded in a spreadsheet to be imported into your software package of choice. There are templates available for creating this information in a spreadsheet for bulk importation or you can employ a data service provider to help.
What to do next
Productive, healthy ewes that produce more live offspring are in our industries best interest and thanks to the ongoing research being done by the industry, excellent tools for improving your lambing outcomes are readily available. I would encourage everybody to think seriously about lamb survival as an important priority when you contemplate your joining decisions next year.