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Unlocking the perfect sheep


11 October 2012

Unlocking the perfect sheep

Imagine the perfect sheep; healthy, fertile, and high producing, with meat of unsurpassed eating quality and wool fit for high value markets. This is the sheep that will transform New Zealand’s sheep industry, providing higher returns to growers and elevating the fibre on which much of the New Zealand economy was built to new heights.

With assistance from the government’s Primary Growth Partnership (PGP), The New Zealand Merino Company (NZM) is investing in production science initiatives to unlock the potential of this perfect sheep, which will thrive across a range of geographic areas and combine great quality meat and wool traits in the same animal.

Leading this transformation is Dr Mark Ferguson, a respected geneticist who specialises in fine wool sheep. Dr Ferguson, who has moved to Christchurch from Western Australia to join NZM, said, “Merino have been managed and selected mostly to produce wool for the last two centuries and therefore remain relatively unselected for meat and reproduction traits. There is enormous scope to bring more balanced selection and more strategic nutrition into the Merino industry to unlock its potential.”

Dr Ferguson will drive a range of initiatives including extending the geographic range of fine wool sheep, facilitating the uptake of estimated breeding values (EBVs), providing robustness including solutions to footrot, and facilitating the development of the sheep that combines the optimum traits for productivity and returns. The benefits for the market will be evident in greater confidence of supply and consistency of quality, and exciting contract opportunities with the likes of Icebreaker on the fibre side and Silere alpine origin merino for meat.

“We will be using the latest molecular genetics technologies to build a new footrot genetic test and, importantly, this test will also check the animal’s genotype for all production and health traits,” said Dr Ferguson.

“This technology means that a drop of blood collected from a lamb’s ear at birth could be used to not only predict the likelihood of that lamb contracting footrot, but also to predict how much and what quality wool it will cut as an adult, how fast it will grow, its likelihood of getting a worm burden, and dozens of other traits including what the consumer’s eating experience will be when that lamb hits the plate,” explained Dr Ferguson.

John Brakenridge, CEO of NZM, said, “The desire to provide farmers with an easy care and market-led sheep marks the beginning of a new era in New Zealand’s sheep industry. Further good news from the market perspective is that these results can be achieved through the careful selection and amplification of existing genetics, rather than using some of the more controversial techniques that have been discussed in recent years.”

Growers will have the opportunity to meet Dr Mark Ferguson and learn more about NZM’s production science initiatives at a series of ‘Bred well, fed well’ workshops, which will take place in November. Anyone interested in attending should contact Nick Hamilton at The New Zealand Merino Company on 03 335 0911.

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