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Making The Most Of Sheep Genetics

Lamb meat is in high demand across Canada as well as in many parts of the world. In Alberta, an expansion campaign is underway to try and bridge the gap between supply and the growing demand. But one problem facing new and existing producers alike is the lack of availability of good genetic breeding stock. Canadian sheep producers are becoming more active in improving the genetics in their own flocks.

“On our farm and as an industry, I can see the improvement in genetics in the time we’ve been in business,” says Mike Rieberger, a sheep producer from west of Bowden, Alta. who’s been producing sheep for 30 years. “Breeding programs are important because they are the only way we can develop a set of measurable factors that make up a good animal and ultimately a good flock. You cannot manage what you do not measure.”

In the 1980s, Mike participated in the Alberta Ram Test Station run by the Alberta Government at Olds College. Throughout the life of the program, numerous breeds were brought to the college and managed the same way, to see which breed performed best under a controlled management system.

When that program came to an end in the mid-1990s, Rieberger was one of the participants in the producer-run Suffolk Sire Reference Program. Participating producers raised sheep with genetics links using a variety of individual management styles. Every producer used the same sire, in this case the genetics became the constant, the management was different. This program wasn’t looking to identify one breed as superior, but measured the animals within the breed to find out which were the superior animals in any given breeds.

He says one thing he’s learned is that you can’t always go by what you see when deciding if a ewe is going to perform. It could be a top breed, but it could have consistent single births or have underlying health issues. Genetic performance numbers are only one tool in selecting productive individuals. He says your eyes can tell you one thing, and the performance of the sheep will tell you something else entirely, or vice versa.

“We spent many years fine tuning the best management for the best breeds using data and on-farm experience,” he says. “We saw a lot of improvement early on in the program, and we continued to fine tune what we learned. We now consistently get lambs with large loin, more muscle, leaner meat that is quicker to market.”

Today identifying high-performing individuals, both for individual traits and overall, and determining performance indicators is being done on a national level through GenOvis, a program which provides genetic evaluation on a cross-country basis. The GenOvis program allows participants to report basic data for evaluation so breeders can identify and select high genetic potential animals. By developing a standard set of indicators, the program seeks to improve flock quality and efficiency of sheep farms.

“It is the one single national performance-testing program available,” says Rieberger, who is a participant. “The benefit is to build and maintain a quality sheep operation. It builds on historical genetic information so producers will have a good idea what will make a good producing ewe.”

He says GenOvis uses indicators called Expected Progeny Differences (EPDs) that tell producers what animals could potentially produce the fastest-growing, best-muscled and top-performing lambs. He says because it is national in scope, producers are able to rate the performance of the whole genetic line, not just the individual but also those with genetic links.

“There are benefits as we are producing sheep that are larger, faster finishing and have leaner meat,” he says. “We also see the benefit on a global basis, because international breeders want our proven genetics.”

Dr. Ileana Wenger is a veterinarian and co-owner of OC Flock Management, also near Bowden. They produce semen and embryos primarily for export but also for domestic use. It is also the only Canadian company currently certified to export sheep genetic material to the European Union. She says that high-quality sheep genetics from Canada are in high demand abroad.

“There is tremendous market potential to export Canadian sheep genetics, and we work to meet international demand for Canadian stock,” she says. “As breeders we’re always trying to improve specific traits that our customers are looking for. Whatever traits we select for, we strive to produce better offspring that can make our customers a greater profit.”

She says that not all genetics work for all markets. If a customer is interested only in the end lamb on the hook, they look for genetics that focus on lamb growth and carcass quality. But she adds that those who are making the most profit from sheep farming are also selecting for maternal traits to improve prolificacy and milking ability. For example, she says currently the Romanov breed is in very high demand in Europe as the breed is highly prolific and is very successful in crossbreeding programs.

“With sheep breeding you need both sides of the coin,” she says. “There needs to be high-quality genetics and the animal has to work for the producer in a commercial market. Once you have decided on your target market, you can decide what breeds meet that need.”

She says that producers should also be looking at the health status of the flock, not just the performance of the breed, as the two features that go hand in hand. Healthy animals are essential for high productivity of the flock. She says that a well-built animal that has longevity, growth and speed to market is desirable all over the world.

In addition to making sure the frozen semen is from a top-performing ram, Wenger has to consider what type of ewes it is being used on. She says that crossbreeding is an important factor; especially overseas, as often, commercial lamb production is with crossbred flocks. Like their Canadian counterparts, international customers weigh breed performance against the economic bottom line. Currently in the world the main focus of sheep production is to produce high-quality meat.

“As an industry we are becoming increasingly concerned with genetics as economics make it important,” says Rieberger. “Lamb is in high demand right now. And when buyers can see proof of the result that our superior genetics bring, they are a lot more interested in investing in those genetics.


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