MAKING sense of genetics and the role they play in lifting productivity of sheep flocks was the role of Meat and Livestock Australia project manager for livestock genetics Caris Jones at last week's Stock Con conference.
Ms Jones said to make change, growers first needed to be aware of their breeding objectives.
"What do you want to achieve?," Ms Jones said.
"Then find out what tools you have available, in other words what is the current performance of your flock.
"Then think about what your target market is and what are the profit drivers and the environment you farm in."
Ms Jones said current performance or production could be linked to an Australian Sheep Breeding Value (ASBV).
"There are a couple of ways to do that," she said.
"One way is if you are already buying rams that come with ASBVs, then look at them and average them out for your ram team and that will provide you with an indication of where your ewes sit.
"If you don't have access to those ASBVs, then you can do a DNA flock profile test which will give the same details."
Ms Jones said environment and management strategies played a part in productivity.
"If we assume everyone's management strategies are top notch, then we can look at genetics and how we are going to use them to improve our flock," she said.
"You need to think about heritability.
"Heritability is the impact of the raw measurements you are taking and how much of that is due to genes and how much is due to environment.
"There are highly heritable traits such as fleece weight and a lot of that is what you see is what you get.
"So we can make a lot of selection decisions using raw measurements to make improvement and that is how we have seen fibre diameter driven to meet markets in our industry already.
"Then you have low heritable traits such as fertility and they are our reproduction traits.
"If we manage sheep better, we are going to get better reproduction performance."
Ms Jones said rams had a huge impact on sheep flocks.
"You probably only have 30 opportunities to purchase rams in you farming lifetime, but they are the ones driving gains," she said.
"They are having more progeny and you can select rams quite intensely.
"Before you focus on the ewe side of things, your ram buying decisions must be right.
"So as we know some traits are more heritable than others, what we see is what we are going to pass on.
"For fleece weight for example, you can have 45 per cent accuracy.
"For reproduction, or number of lambs weaned, that is harder to measure.
"You can't just keep twins and then they will produce twins for you next time.
"Once you use ASBVs in selection decisions, however, you can improve accuracy of reproduction.
"If you want to improve reproduction, you can still be doing all the things on farm because it will be getting you somewhere but you can't get there if you are not looking to bring in rams with high number of lambs weaned (NLW) breeding values."
In line with the genetic discussion, Bronwyn Clarke, site manager of the Merino Lifetime Productivity (MLP) trial, gave an update of where that trial was at.
The MLP is funded by Australian Wool Innovation in partnership with the Sire Evaluation Association, the Federation of Performance Sheep Breeders, Murdoch University and The University of WA (UWA) and is looking at the lifetime productivity of ewes.
It is being run at UWA's Ridgefield Farm at Pingelly.
"The overall aim is to increase understanding of genetics and look at the economic implications of looking at genetics over a lifetime," Ms Clarke said.
"We are keeping ewes for whole lifetime and won't be culling any.
"The trial involves looking at current MerinoSelect indexes and can we provide some more accurate information about genetic relationships between the different traits we are interested in, so we can make indexes more accurate."
The trial is linked to four other sites across Australia and a minimum of 15 sires is used at each site.
Ms Clarke said they had two drops of ewes, born in 2016 and 2017, which were AI joined to 15 sires in each group.
"We are looking at the lifetime productivity of the ewes only, with wether progeny only kept up until weaning," she said.
"We have retained the first cross ewes and these are classed commercially.
"We will objectively score them six to seven times during their lifetime and they are naturally mated to Merino sires."
Ms Clarke said they would be looking at what happened with different genetics as the ewes go through their life.
"We are assessing everything from wool traits through to reproduction information," she said.
Ms Clarke said while it is early days for the project, the amount of results was getting bigger and bigger and these were available on the Merino Superior Sires website.
"The trial will run for seven years, with seven shearings and five lambings so it will take a while for all the information to come forward from the trial but it is looking quite exciting at this point in time," Ms Clarke said.