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'Three brothers' will boost lambing output

Monday, September 22, 2008
'Three brothers' will boost lambing output

Enabling New Zealand farmers to produce lamb year-round is the backbone of a tripartite agreement between Massey University and two Chinese institutions, but the benefits will be much greater, Professor Hugh Blair says.

The partnership is between Massey, Peking University and Xinjiang’s Shihezi University, with the Chinese-Government funded project enabling collaboration to identify gene markers that enable non-seasonal lambing in selected breeds of Chinese sheep.

Professor Blair says that if New Zealand sheep were able to breed year-round in some areas, it would be a further tool for the industry.

“It’s not about changing the industry,” he says, “and many farmers wouldn’t dream of lambing out of season. But up to about a fifth of sheep farmers do have a suitable climate and providing lambs out of season would mean being paid a premium for them.

The research is focusing on the Chinese Hu-Yang sheep.

“We know that tropical breeds have a greater chance of breeding year-round because of course they don’t have a winter,” Professor Blair says. “We were in Xinjiang last year in August – our equivalent of February climate and season – and there were lambs on the ground.”

In New Zealand, most sheep breed between February and June with some minor breeds breeding between November and August. “For most of our breeds, as daylight hours are decreasing the animals come into cycle and that means they will drop their offspring in the Spring. This is sensible from an evolutionary point of view but for farmers it’s a huge spike in supply and the work is also very seasonal.” Professor Blair says.

If New Zealand farmers are to adopt an intensive lambing system that requires ewes to get pregnant at any time of the year, we require access to genetics that are not currently in New Zealand, Professor Blair says.

The Hu-Yang sheep cannot simply be transported to New Zealand because with ewes weighing around 30kg, they are too small to be profitable.

“What we need to do is find the genes that enable the year-round breeding and then move them to any breed we think is suitable,” Professor Blair says.

The partnership is working with the International Sheep Genomics Consortium to gain access to their genetic tools, and Professor Blair has been made an Honorary Principle Investigator in the Chinese Academy of Science to enable him to represent the Chinese partners in the Consortium.

Professor Blair worked on the agreement with Associate Professor Alex Chu, former Massey international liaison and special projects adviser. Now retired, Associate Professor Chu remains involved in this key Chinese collaboration. The pair, with Professor Steve Morris and Dr Paul Kenyon, have visited China several times, including a visit to remote farms bordering Kazakhstan, where the farmers are in fact soldiers settled on the land by Chairman Mao.

Professor Blair says that by the end of this month, he hopes to have collected DNA samples from several Chinese breeds of sheep for the international consortium as a first step in developing the genetic tools to assist in looking for the DNA markers which correspond to out of season breeding. A target date of 2011 has been set for proving the marker genes exist.

“But the work is likely to also find other things of interest,” Professor Blair says. “We may find out about disease-resistance, or meat quality characteristics for example – there’s always a degree of serendipity when you explore. We’re also seeing opportunities for our staff and students, Master's and PhD, and for Chinese staff and students to travel to Massey.”

The Chinese Government has funded the project by around $750,000.


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