Resilience, resistance and records

Writers Posted 03/01/20
I was fortunate enough, last month, to once again attend the Sheep Breeders Round Table.

Sheep Breeders Round Table biennial three-day event is a tremendous opportunity for those with a sheep interest, particularly if slightly academically inclined, to get together to hear what is happening in the sheep world, with sheep research and to share ideas.

With an excellent mix of speakers, farmers, advisors and research scientists, from the UK and overseas, presenting almost 30 papers over the three days, ranging from examples of good practice at a farm gate level, to new and evolving research findings, it is a bit of an information overload. Information that requires a little time to fully absorb and synthesise into what is relevant to individual situations and what ideas can be taken away from the conference; both in terms of modifying existing practices and/or anticipating future developments within the sheep sector. It is however an event that I would certainly recommend to anyone who has the opportunity to attend. The opportunity to simply meet with other workers across the sheep sector, to share and discuss ideas, makes it a worthwhile event, it is very easy to get bogged down in day to day activities and any opportunity to take a step back and take a wider view of what one does, really must be beneficial.

I’m sure that almost everyone attending the event has, on reflection, come away with slightly different views on what key messages can be taken from recent developments within the sector. Simply to hear about some of the interesting and valuable research that is being conducted is very positive, research funding tends to follow those areas where it can be seen to generate the most benefit, the simple fact that there is so much exciting work being done is a reflection of confidence in the sheep sector.

One of the key messages that I was able to take from the conference was one of sustainability and maintaining an efficient and profitable sheep sector moving forward into a time when we are going to be seeing a changing production and marketing environment. There is certainly a lot of emphasis on resilience, an interesting word, but basically the ability of the industry to cope with changes in not just a changing financial environment but also being able to adapt to changing patterns in the country’s weather, in particular the ability of our sheep to cope with some of the extreme weather events that we have experienced over the past few years.

I’m sure that, across the region there will be almost as many views on climate change as there are sheep producers, but one thing that cannot be denied is that weather patterns are changing we are seeing more extreme weather events, extreme hot and dry, extreme cold and extreme rainfall events. On the positive side the ability of a sheep to cope with extreme weather events is something that we area able to select and breed for and, with a heritability of somewhere between 15 and 25% an area in which we can make fairly rapid progress, on the negative side however this does seem to come at a cost of a loss of up to 10% in daily live-weight gains. Given a choice between a sheep that can cope with extreme weather and are that grows a bit faster but may fall over in poor weather, I would always opt for the former, in terms of sustainability and welfare. Other might disagree.

In terms of ‘public goods’, I see a tremendous opportunity here for some of our native breeds including some of the rarer heritage breeds, all developed to suit differing production environments, some very challenging. Opportunities arising from their use in specific environments as pure breeds, or as a source of valuable genetic material to introduce traits associated with hardiness into other breeds and crosses.

A tremendous amount of the work being undertaken at research and advisory levels now revolves around the use of sheep genomics and the ability to identify in sheep the genes responsible for different production and health traits in sheep. Gene technology is being employed to guide research into disease resistance and to inform developments within sheep recording programmes. With some interesting work being done in Ireland linking physical records to genomics to help produce not just sire indexes but maternal indexes even for terminal sire breeds, enabling a very much more targeted approach to selecting replacement ewes in pedigree flocks.

Yet another strong theme throughout the conference was that the “future is maternal”, with very much more emphasis being placed on breeding the correct sort of ewes, ewes that will perform; with a move towards self replacing flocks with all of the additional health, production and cost benefits that can arise. Self-contained ewe flocks, either entirely pure bred or crossbred ewes produced from a nucleus purebred flock provide a much greater level of control over future performance and disease control, home bred ewes can be selected based upon their own performance, the performance of their dam and on any relevant sire data.

This brings me to another strong thread from the conference, which was the use of records and information to inform future production decisions. Many sheep producers either collect or could have ready access to information that if used properly could help to significantly performance. The use of EID, particularly with larger flocks that can justify the costs of an integrated EID system, has made the collection and analysis of data so much easier but many producers simply do not or do not know how to make use of that data. Even for the smaller flock collection and use of performance indicators can reap significant advantages, e.g. birth weights and 8-week weights of lambs are excellent indicators of ewe performance, many will already have access to the required information but simply do not utilise it effectively.

Overall the conference was all about recognizing the need to have a healthy, efficient, resilient and sustainable sheep sector moving forwards into an uncertain future.

For those that are interested there are copies of all of the papers presented at this year’s Sheep Breeders Round Table on the NSA website, under SBRT 2019, take a look!

Finally, many thanks to South East Farmer magazine for sponsoring my attendance at this year’s SBRT and very best wishes to everyone for a happy, successful, resilient, and sustainable 2020.

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