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Transforming the merino with modern genetics

CSIRO : 07 October, 2006  (New Product)
New CSIRO research is employing modern genetics to help transform the Australian merino into a sheep that can produce lean, fast growing lambs as well as its traditional, high-value fleece.
Dr Norm Adams, Senior Research Scientist with CSIRO Livestock Industries has found that merino ewes with the biggest fleeces tend to be thinner and have lower rates of reproduction than their poorer-fleeced sisters.

“These sheep can have difficulty maintaining body reserves without a plentiful food supply and as a result can produce fewer lambs,” he said.

Dr Adams said the research findings have implications for animal production as well as ensuring that lamb survival is a priority.

“In times when feed is in short supply, such as the autumn feed gap, sheep bred for the biggest fleeces do not do as well as others,” Dr Adams said.

He said one explanation could be that their energy appeared to be going into developing a good, heavy fleece at the expense of the animal’s fitness, its fat to muscle ratio and its ability to reproduce.

“The issue here is not wool versus meat but wool versus fat and the ability to reproduce.

“Simply put, the findings show that if we push too much for production we can muck up the sheep’s chance of reproducing.”

Dr Adams said sheep with a high variability in their wool fibre diameter also tended to run out of fat before those with a more consistent fleece.

He said sheep producers may need to balance their desire to produce greater quantities of wool with their need to produce lambs to meet modern consumer demands.

Dr Adams said he hoped to extend the research to determine the optimum balance between wool production and an animal’s reproductive health for different environments.

“The future viability of the Australian sheep industry is dependent on diversification and this work has shown that the genetic change needed to produce animals that can deliver both wool and meat is possible, even with the constraints of an increasingly fragile Australian landscape.”

This research is part of a larger Australian Sheep Industry Cooperative Research Centre project examining future directions for the Merino industry.
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