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Breeding sheep for the future

At the recent Grasslands conference John Webb Ware from the Mackinnon Project reminded us of the key profit drivers of grazing systems, including genetic improvement. As managers, genetics is something that we have full control over and is a relatively easy 'lever' to pull. However, the difficult part is working out exactly what breeding direction you are going to head in. What traits should I be focusing on? Will these changes make me more money? What information or tools should I use to help me reach my goal? Led by Phil Graham and Ashely White from the NSW Department of Primary Industries (DPI), these questions were explored at a recent workshop held near Crookwell - a joint initiative between South East Local Land Services, Tablelands Farming Systems and DPI.

Where's your money coming from?

The workshop kicked off by asking producers to think about where their current enterprise sits and where they want to be in 10 years time. Producers were reminded that when thinking about the future it's important to have a clear understanding of what's really driving profit as this should dictate how much emphasis you place on various traits (Table 1). Interestingly, the proportion of income from wool, meat and cast for age animals is very stable, even when commodity prices change significantly.

Table 1. Income breakdown ($/ha)* for 18um self-replacing Merino and second cross prime lamb enterprises at Binda, NSW.

18 um MerinoPrime lamb
Wool$383  (57%)$113  (13%)
Cast for age animals (CFA)$60  (9%)$83  (10%)
Sale of surplus ewes$85  (12%)
Sale of wethers$147  (22%)
$652  (77%)
Profit ($/ha)$261$233

*Average prices and cost for 2014 were used in the calculationsSource: Graham and White 2015

Prime lamb enterprises

There is currently a lot of discussion and debate in the industry around the value of ewe body weight. Historical data shows first cross ewes have increased by about 15kg in 20 years (from 60kg in 1990 to 75kg in 2010). Producers were asked 'where do you want your mature ewe weight to be in 10 years from now?' While ewe liveweight does help with lamb growth rate, modelling work shows that heavier ewes don't necessarily make you more money due to higher feeding costs and management issues. Producers were advised to use high growth rate sires to boost lamb growth rates rather than ewes as it's much easier to manage a handful of big rams than a couple of thousand first cross ewes. It was also commented that in some parts of southern Australia shearers are now charging 1.5 times the standard rate for extra-large ewes. Modelling work shows that high growth rate sires tend to be more profitable in poor seasons (as a result of quicker turn off), but producers need to remain flexible with their marketing strategies to take advantage of good seasons. The key to being flexible is making sure that you select a ram that is suited to both the trade and export markets. In a practical sense this means paying attention to both post weaning weight (PWT) and fat (PWT) Australian Sheep Breeding Values (ASBVs) when selecting a ram.

Self replacing Merino flocksIncreasing ewe liveweight has also been a general trend over time in many Merino flocks, but having bigger ewes may not increase overall profit. This is largely due to the fact that wool is the main source of income and that proceeds from meat (via surplus animals) is mainly driven by reproduction rate, not ewe size. Bigger ewes also eat more, so you can't run as many of them. If producers don't want their ewes to get any bigger they need to include this in their breeding objective. However, this is difficult to do at present as unlike the beef industry there is no ASBV for mature weight. One of the difficult decisions Merino producers face is working out the degree of emphasis that they are going to place on micron versus fleece weight. Producers were reminded that calculating their Micron Premium (MP) is a simple and effective way to try and identify this. For example, a 3.5% MP indicates that your breeding objective should focus on maximising fleece weight while maintaining fibre diameter. A MP of 7% indicates that you should place equal weighting on both, and a 14% MP tells you to focus on reducing micron. For more information on how to calculate your MP refer to:

Primefact 74 "Choosing a bloodline source". A range of tools and information is available to help you select which rams to buy – the hard part is knowing what to use and when. There was good discussion around the value of various tools such as wether trials, visual appraisal and the use of Selection Indexes and ASBVs. Producers were warned that while Selection Indexes can be helpful, it critical that you know understand the degree of emphasis that is being placed on various traits.

For further information, contact:

Matthew Lieschke - Livestock Officer
Phone: 02 4824 1913
Mobile: 0428 271 127

Jennifer Medway - Tablelands Farming Systems
Phone: 02 4845 1123
Mobile: 0417 490 329

References: Graham P and White AK 2015  Which breeding direction for sheep on the Southern Tablelands? In Proceedings of the 29th Annual Conference of The Grasslands Society of NSW Inc.