Those who raise livestock know the importance of genetics. Research in sheep genetics is moving ahead rapidly, with more breeders willing to use available tools to improve their bottom line.

At the American Sheep Industry conference earlier this year, Dr. Ron Lewis, professor of animal breeding and genomics at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, explained a new genetics project that’s examining key profitability factors. The GEMS project is tracking Genetics, Environment, Management and the Socio-economic component of sheep production.

“For us to do the right job for producers, we need to think about the entire production system,” said Lewis. “It isn’t just genetics – we need to account for these animals that are being reared in different environments, managed in different ways; then, how do we convince producers, the industry, to take on more technologies?”

Lewis said one issue in the sheep industry is that nearly half of ewes are culled prematurely. “About 7% of lambs are lost to other reasons than predation,” he said. “That’s a tremendous loss of opportunity and a well-being consequence. There are also many ewes with subclinical mastitis, which is costing us.”

The goal is to breed animals that are more robust to avoid losses, but Lewis said sheep producers aren’t doing a good job evaluating robustness in flocks. “We don’t keep good track of lamb survival, ewe longevity, udder health and gastrointestinal nematode infection and resistance,” he said. “How do we breed for what we aren’t recording?”

Lewis’s GEMS team is addressing several questions, including “What do we need to understand to make our flocks more robust?”

“What can we measure on the farm to evaluate resilience and robustness of our animals, and how can we use genetic diversity to our advantage to make change?” he asked. “We can’t use all of that diversity, so we need to use it in a sensible way.”

Sheep GEMS is collecting information on over 3,000 animals, primarily ewes. Breeds represented include Katahdin, Polypay, Rambouillet and Suffolk. One segment of the project is collecting a medium-density panel – a genotyping platform that provides 50,000 markers across the chromosomes present in sheep.

“Around lambing time, we’re asking flocks to collect several data points,” said Lewis. “We need to know if the ewe and lamb needed assistance that impacts their survivability, udder data and teat placement, body condition and FAMACHA scores that indicate anemia related to parasitism with Haemonchus contortus (barber pole worm).”

Lamb data will include fecal egg count and FAMACHA scores; on ewes, the team will compile body weights, BCS and FAMACHA scores. At breeding time, producers will record body weight and BCS.

The reason for collecting multiple BCSs is to get a sense of climatic resilience. “We anticipate ewes will be in good condition at breeding, and rise in condition until lambing, then fall down in condition by the time they finish lactation,” Lewis said. “To me, that’s a productive ewe. Then we want her to regain condition by the time she’s bred again. We need to measure the change over time to find out if she’s a resilient ewe, and condition and weight are a good way to get a handle on that. Also, did someone have to intervene for health reasons? Did a breeder cull or dispose of an animal or did it die?”

Participating flocks are currently collecting and submitting data. First year data will be elementary but a necessary first step. “By incorporating genomic information with performance data, we will be able to more accurately provide estimated breeding values on current traits that are measured through NSIP and new traits we’re beginning to record,” he said.

“We’re also going to provide cost-effective ways for the industry to invest in genomics. Genomics is always going to be relatively expensive in the small ruminant compared to beef or dairy cattle because of the value of the individual animal. We need to think about how to come up with genotyping strategies that identify the most effective animals to collect samples from and submit for genotyping.”

For climatic diversity, considerations include temperature, rainfall pattern and elevation. Sheep in the U.S. are raised in a wide variety of conditions so it’s important to understand variances in conditions and why they matter.

“When we looked at parasitism, a key factor of clusters comes with warmer temperatures and more rainfall,” said Lewis. “Alternatively, clusters with less parasitism tended to have lambed indoors – lambs were kept inside then went out to pasture later.”

The next steps for Sheep GEMS are to include more flocks, consider management and climate, build ewes that withstand their environment better and identify more robust sire lines. Some rams produce well irrespective of climate and management, while others are highly impacted by climate and perform poorly as impacts increase.

Lewis said one shortfall for sheep producers is the lack of straightforward, flexible tools available for data collection and recording. “This is going to be a challenge for our industry,” he said. “We’re small players. In order to encourage companies to think we’re worth the trouble, we need to uniformly show the need. My hope is that with 62 producers in Sheep GEMS collecting a slew of new metrics, we have a bit of leverage to say ‘We have a need and a commitment to use this information.’”

Another key is demonstrating why it’s worthwhile to collect information. Lewis said it’s about showing return on investment and suggested establishing a demonstration farm where these techniques can be applied so producers see how the tools work and how they can benefit from them.

The socio-economic focus of GEMS needs the most improvement, according to Lewis. It’s about communicating results to the U.S. sheep industry better than in the past. Industry presentations, webinars, podcasts, journals, newsletters and an advisory board all help.

“It’s communicating results well and encouraging adoption,” said Lewis. “I can do all the fancy science but it doesn’t matter if you don’t care.”

If producers don’t adopt technology, it isn’t valuable to the industry. Adoption is key but Lewis said it’s the most neglected area.

“For this to really work, we need to train and support talented young producers and scientists to keep the momentum going,” said Lewis. “We have a crop of young folks who are early in their careers, and it’s up to all of us to encourage training to continue and draw in young producers as to what we’re doing.”

by Sally Colby