THE days of the first cross ewe - the cornerstone of the Australian prime lamb breeding industry - could finally be numbered.
Australian Wool Innovation chairman Ian McLachlan opened a potential can of worms at the ABARE Outlook conference earlier this year, when he volunteered his prediction that genetic research to breed bigger, meatier Merinos will eventually render the first-cross ewe redundant.
"I'm predicting the first cross ewe will disappear," Mr McLachlan said, in answer to a question about whether the Australian wool and lamb industries will eventually become a single sheep industry.
"That is if we can get meat Merinos right. But people are already doing a good job (with Merino ewes) and still getting a $100 lamb."
After Merinos, the first cross ewe (traditionally a Merino/Border Leicester cross) is one of the most common types of sheep in Australia, favoured by commercial lamb breeders for the hybrid vigour it contributes to a terminal lamb breeding operation.
Mr McLachlan said using a pure Merino would mean breeders do not lose any value in their ewe wool clip.
But predictions of the demise of the first-cross ewe are hard to swallow for Australian Border Leicester Association president Graham Grinter.
A pure Merino ewe could never match the prolific hybrid vigour of a lamb by a first cross ewe, and nor could a softer-footed Merino handle high rainfall country as well as a Merino/Border Leicester cross, Mr Grinter said.
An F1 ewe also provided far superior fertility and milking ability.
"I go to the Wagga lamb market most weeks, and you see what makes the big weights and the big money most of the time - it is those second cross lambs," he said.
"You will see the pens of those Merino/Dorset cross lambs sometimes make good money, but week in, week out it is those second cross lambs that return the big dollars."