Breeding strategies to make sheep farms resilient to uncertainty

Graduate School of Wageningen Institute of Animal Sciences (WIAS).

Type: Research Paper
Knowledge level: Advanced

Farm Table says:

This study looks at how breeding sheep can help your farming enterprise to be more resilient and also more profitable

The Western Australian sheep industry has had many challenges over the last 20 years – which have caused sheep numbers to decline from 35 million to 15 million.

Sheep numbers in Western Australia have declined as farmers reduce their sheep flock by selling more lambs for meat and changing their preference to other enterprise types.

Sheep management remains labour intensive and farmers have trouble managing profitable sheep systems due to high variation in pasture growth and commodity prices between years.

The biggest cause of the shift away from sheep production is the increase in the relative profitability of cropping. Most farms in the Mediterranean climate zones have mixed crop and sheep.

What did the research involve?

This thesis had two aims;

  1. Quantify the potential to select and breed sheep that are more resilient to varying pasture growth
  2. Quantify how sheep breeding can make farming systems more resilient to varying pasture growth and meat, wool, and grain prices

Topics covered include:

  • Merino ewes can be bred for live weight change to be more tolerant to uncertain feed supply
  • Genetic correlations between live weight change and reproduction traits in Merino ewes depend on age
  • Varying pasture growth and commodity prices change the value of traits in sheep breeding objectives
  • Breeding objectives for sheep should be customized depending on variation in pasture growth across years

What were the key findings?

One way to improve resilience and profitability of mixed farming systems is through breeding of sheep.

These improvements are cumulative and permanent and are easy to integrate into current management.

Breeding for resilience can be investigated at the animal level, by selecting sheep that are resilient to variation in pasture growth, or at the farming system level, by selecting sheep that will maximize profitability at the farm level.

Final comment

This study concludes that breeding sheep to be resilient to variation in pasture growth across years can contribute towards making farming systems more resilient to variation in pasture growth and prices, but some production traits were also effective at increasing the resilience of farming systems.

2014 - Australia - Graduate School of Wageningen Institute of Animal Sciences (WIAS).
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