By TIM SLATER
THERE is enormous untapped potential for genetic progress in Merino sheep, and that potential is about to be realised.
That's the optimistic assessment of Australian Wool Innovation wool production manager Paul Swan.
Dr Swan said AWI has invested $25 million over five years to improve a whole-sheep genetic strategy, not just focusing on wool-specific research.
"Most of this potential can be realised on your property with very little investment," he said.
The genetic effort has been divided into two areas ‹ applied and molecular.
Applied genetics focuses on the short-medium term, including the establishment of a genetics database.
Molecular genetics was more focused on using gene markers to identify key traits and was compatible with current systems.
Dr Swan said AWI had invested $49m in 109 projects and had an annual budget of $25m.
These projects included developing more productive grazing systems, more efficient, healthy and genetically progressive sheep, and better synergy between sheep, meat and cropping activities.
Animal health was a key area, with a global search being carried out to identify new worm control chemicals to replace current compounds that were facing parasite resistance problems.
"We've identified two compounds with pharmaceutical companiess who don't specialise in sheep but the compounds can be applied to sheep to control parasites," Dr Swan said.
"We are negotiating with them to explore an option of possibly, depending on the economic arguments and the practicalities, bringing these tools to the industry because otherwise they are not going to come here."
There is also much excitement and interest in a new, pain-free mulesing technique, an anti-protozoal vaccine, footrot eradication and new dog and fox baits.
"We've made a lot of progress in developing a painless replacement for mulesing," he said.
"One technology in particular applies chemical to the backside of the sheep.
"The wool falls out and the skin in the latest trial results contract.
"This is very exciting technology with human implications."
Wool harvesting is also another major area of production AWI is focusing on with 29 projects on the go, totallying $14m ‹ including the controversial Shear Express experiment.
He said AWI was looking far and wide for new wool harvesting innovations that could be bought to market and was not just relying on Shear Express.
Dark and medullated fibre contamination was emerging as one of the biggest issues likely to threaten Australia's international wool quality reputation
"It is one of the number one issues that we hear about from our processing partners," Dr Swan said.
"We are working with Australian Wool Testing Authority and industry bodies to develop a pre-sale vendor declaration backed up by objective measurements.
"In the longer term we are also spending about $1.14m developing low-cost, automated, pre-sale measurement technology for dark and medullated fibre."
But Dr Swan said the bottom line was on developing practical, relevant and low cost solutions to improve wool production.
"Otherwise we are not going to achieve the changes we need to achieve, including greater pasture productivity, sharper genetic tools, increased fibre quality and more efficient wool harvesting," he said.