The genetics of temperament in Merino sheep and relationships with lamb survival

Kate Plush, Forbes D. Brien, Michelle L Hebart - Applied Animal Behaviour Science

Type: Research Paper
Knowledge level: Advanced

Farm Table says:

Interesting results, particularly that the more the nervous ewe, the higher the litter survival. This was an unexpected result of the research. Also, although the effect will be small, calmer ewes will tend to have progeny with increased staple length.

This research was founded on the understanding that we need to improve lamb survival by genetic means, as even when management is optimised, survival still fails to improve above a certain percentage.

This research investigated the genetics of temperament traits in Merino ewes. The researchers stated that if a relationship between temperament and lamb survival could be established, then we may be able to use indirect selection to enable an increased gain in lamb survival.

The research involved data from 118 rams, approximately 2,000 animals, and over 20,000 data records.

  • Motherablity of a ewe is a subjective score and is based on:
  • Proximity of ewe whilst lamb is being tagged
  • Ewes affinity to her lamb
  • Agitation whilst isolated from flockmates
  • Flight time after release from a weight crate

The research found that heritability of:

  • Mothering temperament was moderate to highly heritable – 0.35
  • Agitation score and flight time was less heritable – 0.2
  • Litter survival was low – 0.09

In addition, the genetic correlation results between litter survival and the following were:

  • Ewe mothering temperament – 0.18
  • Agitation score – 0.39
  • Flight time – 0.09

Also, the genetic correlation between temperament and wool traits “overall were negligible”.

So what does this mean?

Improving lamb survival through indirect selection for temperament may be unlikely. However, the results did show temperament traits were low to moderately heritable and therefore can be suitable for use in genetic selection.

2011 - Australia - Kate Plush, Forbes D. Brien, Michelle L Hebart - Applied Animal Behaviour Science
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