The future of the MLA Resource Flock has been secured until 2020, providing the basis for industry adoption and further development of genomic selection technology.
MLA Genetics R&D Project Manager Sam Gill said MLA supported funding of the flock for a further six years to protect the accuracy and integrity of genomic testing for hard-to-measure traits, such as lean meat yield (LMY) and eating quality.
“Genomic selection allows the selection of young animals for both simple and hard-tomeasure traits, but it requires about 400 new animals/year/breed to be measured and genotyped for all traits,” Sam said.
“If the Resource Flock was not maintained, the accuracy and integrity of those genomic tests would reduce over time.
“While selection for these hard-to-measure traits could continue, it would be difficult to manage any unfavourable relationships between traits, so continued selection for improved LMY would result in reduced eating quality for lamb.”
As part of its funding decision, MLA requested a biennial review of the Flock’s progress, design and structure, and a greater engagement with industry.
“We’re moving to an open co-investment model that will eventually see both research stations and ram breeder flocks supplying the reference data needed for genomic selection,” Sam said.
Safeguarding the genetic gains
The CRC for Sheep Industry Innovation (Sheep CRC) has estimated that, with the genomic information now available, it is possible to increase the rate of genetic improvement of the current selection indices by more than 7% in meat breeds and around 20% for Merinos.
There are additional benefits from the potential to select now on new traits that are not yet in the index, such as meat quality.
“Genetic improvement is one of the most cost effective methods for lifting on-farm productivity,” Sam said.
“The current rate of genetic improvement in the Australian sheep industry is high for traits that are cheap or easy to record, such as growth rate and muscularity, but generally poor for hard-to-measure traits that are either too expensive to measure, have no clear market signals or can only be measured late in life.
“The Resource Flock’s contribution to genomic selection technology means the sheep industry is now moving into an area where DNA technology is commercially available to sheep breeders for a wide range of traits.
“The other benefit of the Resource Flock is that we can use it to overlay other research projects, over and above genetics, looking at things like production, health, welfare and lifetime reproduction.
“There is about $6 million in additional projects using that sheep population as a resource.”
Delivering for producers
The current MLA Resource Flock began as the Sheep CRC’s Information Nucleus Flock (INF) in 2007. Over five years, the INF gathered a massive database of biological and genetic information by joining 5,000 ewes each year to about 100 industry sires chosen for their genetic diversity.
The sheep were run as five sub-flocks, spread over eight research stations around Australia.
INF Program Leader Professor Julius van der Werf said the flock was carefully created to reflect Australia’s entire sheep genetic resource. “In the five years, we tested about 20,000 animals for more than 150 traits,” Julius said.
“We’re now picking out the most important hard-to-measure traits to measure in the long term, such as intramuscular fat, meat quality, tenderness and fatty acid profile.
“We’re also using the data collected over that time to investigate new traits, such as nutritional content, disease resistance and methane yield.”
As well as supplying data for new genomic selection, the INF has improved the current sheep industry genetic analysis by refining the genetic connections between Australian sheep flocks and generating new data.
As soon as new data is collected, it is included in the routine MERINOSELECT and LAMBPLAN genetic analyses, providing new and improved Australian Sheep Breeding Values (ASBVs) for traits such as fertility, parasite and breech strike resistance.
Extract from MLA Friday Feedback 13/6/14