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Genetic fat – bullet proofing the Merino ewe

Thompson, A.N., Ferguson, M.B., John, S.E., Kearney, G., Rose, G. and Young, J. (2012) Genetic fat – bullet proofing the Merino ewe. In: Proceeding of the LambEx 2012 Conference, 28 - 29 June, Bendigo, Vic, Australia pp. 41-46.

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Merino ewes are the backbone of the Australian sheep industry and this is likely to be the case for some time. Stocking rate will remain a key profit driver in Merino enterprises and to maintain or improve profitability producers will need to continually adapt their production systems to deal with even larger changes in feed supply between seasons and years. The reproductive performance of the Merino ewe also needs to improve, largely through improving the survival of twin born lambs, to rebuild flock numbers and meet market demand for lamb and sheep meat. Increasing both stocking rates and reproductive performance need to be achieved in the context of producers wanting to run more sheep per person with less intervention and increased consumer demand for welfare friendly products. Improving genetics and matching sheep genotype to the production and management system will inevitably become more important. We believe this will include defining traits to more easily identify Merino sheep that are more robust, that lose less liveweight when faced with sub-optimum nutrition and that produce more progeny with higher survival rates both pre- and post-weaning.

Increasing genetic fat is the prime candidate for increasing the robustness of Merino ewes and their progeny as the storage and mobilisation of fat is an important mechanism for all animals to cope with fluctuating environments. Fat is stored during favourable times and then mobilised to provide energy for fundamental functions when requirements exceed supply, such as during periods of limited nutrition or during late pregnancy and lactation. The amount of fat stored in fat depots in sheep can be increased by selection for higher subcutaneous fat depth, using Australian Sheep Breeding Values (ASBVs) from MERINOSELECT. However, from a genetic perspective, reducing the fatness of lamb to improve its appeal to the consumer has resulted in a general focus on selection for less fat in Australian sheep breeds. Merino sheep have also become leaner as a result of selection for higher fleece weights and the genetic association between higher fleece weight and reduced fatness (Huisman and Brown 2009). Defining the true value of fat requires an understanding of the effect it has on the value of lamb carcasses as well as its effects on the productivity of the sheep production system in different environments. In this paper we have reviewed published papers and our own unpublished work to test the hypothesis that Merino sheep that are genetically fatter will have improved performance especially under more restricted nutritional conditions.

Publication Type: Conference Paper
Murdoch Affiliation: School of Veterinary and Biomedical Sciences
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