A spotlight was put on sheep and science at Katanning recently, with presentations on yardstick benchmarking data, biological wool harvesting and reproductive research.
More than 100 producers, industry representatives and researchers flocked to the Katanning Research Station for the annual sheep field day, hosted by the Department of Primary Industries and Regional Development, in conjunction with the Federation of Performance Sheep Breeders and Australian Wool Innovation (AWI).
Those attending received updates on the 2022-drop yardstick progeny, Merino Lifetime Productivity and AWI biological wool harvesting and artificial insemination research projects, before visiting the new feed intake facility.
Australian Merino Sire Evaluation executive officer Ben Swain shared results on the 2022-drop Yardstick progeny.
The program has collected objective measure data for more than 25 years, and provided sheep producers with valuable flock breeding values to improve flock performance.
It has evolved significantly to include more than 30 measurements for sheepmeat, wool and easy-care traits.
The sire evaluation site at Katanning, works to breed sheep that are well-grown and structurally sound.
As part of its breeding objective, it requires a balance between wool and body size to provide the typical dual-purpose WA Merino type.
Commonly, when run commercially, the body weight is expected to be 10 times greater than the greasy fleece weight.
Visually, the wool should be of medium length, attractive crimp, bright and white, uniform over the body and with no evidence of fleece rot.
Mr Swain shared the results of 12 Merino rams, which were included in this year's program including 10 WA stud entrants and two sires linked from nine sites across Australia.
Assessments were undertaken at particular age stages for a variety of traits.
Trait leaders were identified as the three highest performing, or more if equal, sires of each trait.
Traits included average fibre diameter, fibre diameter coefficient of variation, staple length at the mid side, staple strength (N/kt) at the mid-side, body weight, eye muscle depth at the C site, fat depth at the C site and condition score.
Merino Lifetime Productivity (MLP) project site manager Bronwyn Clarke, Murdoch University, provided an update on the MLP project.
Dr Clarke said data collection in the national project would be completed by July next year, bringing the collection to more than two million records.
"Analysis of the data set will take place after that and the Animal Genetics and Breeding Unit (AGBU) in Armidale, New South Wales, have been contracted for this work," Dr Clarke said.
"In the meantime, there have been 12 site specific and add-on project publications."
Dr Clarke said it was important producers made sure they got the rams right, as they can have a "very big effect" (31pc) or none at all (1pc).
So what is AGBU looking at now?
Dr Clarke said the variation between MLP for production traits was similar to the variation by all sires in the sheep genetics database - showing that the MLP sires selected (n=134 over five sites) were representative of industry.
"We have range of sires that have above average Australian Sheep Breeding Values for weaning rate and adult clean fleece weight," she said.
"We are seeing sires that have above average ASBVs for adult clean fleece weight and below average early breech wrinkle."
Supported by AWI, Dr Clarke said additional industry research projects were based on MLP ewes/wethers, she said the MLP data had also enhanced genetic evaluation for industry through all data being included in MERINOSELECT and increased volume of reproduction, adult performance and wrinkle data.
The final presenter was Jess Rickard, the University of Sydney, New South Wales.
Dr Rickard and PhD student Eloise Spanner have been involved in the largest collection of sheep artificial insemination (AI) data in Australia and arguably the world, with the aim of reducing variability and improving success rates.
The project is part of a University of Sydney study, supported by AWI, to determine what factors influence the success of laparoscopic AI and recommend new semen standards for the industry.
Dr Rickard outlined some of the benefits of AI and its importance, but also noted the lower rate of adoption in the sheep industry compared to other industries
"We don't have a firm idea, but we think less than 2pc of the sheep industry uses artificial insemination compared to almost 90pc in the dairy industry," Dr Rickard said.
"That means you get a slower rate of genetic progress compared to other species."
Dr Rickard said so much research was being centred on the use of valuable genetic tools and their benefit.
But if those tools could be coupled with artificial reproductive technologies then it could further maximise their benefit or role in the industry.
To increase adoption rates, she said variable success rates needed to be understood.
Dr Rickard said many anecdotal reports were received of variable results in artificial insemination programs on the same farm over several years.
For example, one year might produce great fertility results, while the next would completely fail, with no obvious changes made onfarm.
She said the project was collecting as much data as possible to better understand the reason behind this and show variation in fertility rates across Australia.
"We have collected data over 30,000 ewes the 2020-21, 2021-22 and 2022-23 breeding season at over 17 different sites around Australia and Yardstick is one of them," Dr Rickard said.
"The average pregnancy rate for each site in the project ranged from almost 90pc down to 50pc, with Yardstick performing in the top 10pc of sites.
"However, if you look at results across the three different years you start to see big fluctuations in fertility at Yardstick and all sites.
"We think the quality of the semen used in these programs might shed some light on where this variation is coming from."
Dr Rickard added, "we are now finishing up analysing the semen used in these programs to be able to accurately look for correlations between semen factors and pregnancy success".
"If we can identify what leads to poor results then we could potentially screen semen prior to artificial insemination, reducing the risk of failed programs, increasing adoption and the rate of genetic gain for the industry," she said.
As part of the event, Icon Agriculture hosted a pen side introduction of progeny groups, before a tour of the Katanning research centre's feed efficiency shed.
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