Flock Profile DNA test focuses genetic selection on Kangaroo Island

By Michael Thomson of CQUniversity’s Institute for Future Farming Systems

NEOGEN’s Flock Profile DNA test for commercial Merino flocks has sharpened genetic selection decisions for Kangaroo Island’s Matt and Alicia Cooper, delivering immediate dividends.

On their 1000-hectare pastoral block, “Treville Farming”, the Coopers run a flock of 9500 adult Merinos, plus 3700 Merino lambs and first-cross lambs on a mix of ryegrass, clover and perennial pastures, some of which is baled for fodder security.

But as their flock make up changes with evolving business priorities – the Coopers are currently reducing their adult wether numbers in favour of more ewes – they realised they needed a better grasp on their genetic base.

“We attended a Farm Owners Academy course a few years ago and it really hit home that if we don’t measure it and if we don’t know what we’re producing, how do we get a better flock?” Alicia said. “We really didn’t know if the rams we were buying were making our flock better or worse.”

Not long afterwards a presentation at a Nutrien field day by Neogen’s South Australia territory manager, Dan Roe, introduced them to the Merino Flock Profile test, which provides commercial breeders with a baseline genetic assessment through DNA analysis of a random sample of 20 sheep from within the flock.

The Flock Profile results deliver genomic predicted breeding values, which are scaled to Australian Sheep Breeding Values (ASBV) to allow users to compare their flock average to the industry average for 14 different traits, ranging from fibre diameter to fleece weight, weaning weight and worm egg count.

The couple tested a cohort of their 2020 weaners revealing several areas for improvement, with the Coopers choosing to prioritise fibre diameter and clean fleece weight.

“If you focus on too many things, it limits what rams you can buy and what you can afford,” Alicia said.

As a result, the Coopers were able to analyse sale catalogues to identify rams that met their criteria of a minimum score of -1.2 for fibre diameter and clean fleece weight of 19-21.

“This year we did the Flock Profile test again with lambs in the cradle and we found a genetic improvement in fibre diameter moving from -0.1 to -0.9 and our score for clean fleece weight had improved from 16.9 to 17.5,” Matt said.

The Coopers were also pleasantly surprised to learn that their flock is in the top 20% of industry for worm egg count score.

“Seeing that we’ve made such an improvement on those two traits, we’ll probably focus our attention now on other traits to keep improving the flock,” Alicia said. “We’re almost at our target for fibre diameter, so we’re able to take some emphasis off that, but the new results show we need to work on eye muscle depth and fat.”

With the data available from Neogen’s test reports, the Coopers are able to track their progress relative to the changes in the industry average for each trait.

“Before we did genetic testing, we were flying blind. We knew our clip quality from wool testing, but we didn’t know the genetics that were giving us those results,” Matt said.

“With a clear breeding objective in place, we ask for catalogues and scan the data to identify which rams will meet our objectives – all we have to do is turn up on the day and make sure those rams are structurally sound before making a decision to bid.

“It has also meant that we’ve looked at rams that other people have overlooked and we’ve been able to get the genetics that are right for our flock at a pretty good price.”

Having data at hand and a clear breeding objective has also enabled the Coopers to approach local studs with a specific request of what they are looking for, with some studs responding by producing sheep especially for their needs.

The Coopers haven’t quantified exactly how much the change in approach has boosted their bottom line, but they do know that by producing finer wool as a result of improved genetics, they are earning higher prices than those on offer for broader wools.

Calculating changes to the quantity of wool yields has been complicated by changes to their shearing regime. Traditionally, the ewe flock is joined in January and February for lambing in July and August, with shearing in November.

Last year yielded 300 bales, however, this year the Coopers started the process of bringing forward shearing by five months in pursuit of the price premiums available for better staple length – the adult flock yielded 208 bales at shearing in September, with this year’s lamb drop to be shorn in February to complete the clip.

“Even so, I think the Flock Profile test has been well worth the cost. Until you see the improvements from the first test to the second test, it’s hard to appreciate just how valuable this test is to achieving your breeding objectives,” Matt said.

“Any farmer who isn’t doing this is losing money in my opinion, because you can’t get to where you want to go if you don’t know where you are right now.

“If you want to still be farming in 2030 you need to move along with the technology and the Flock Profile test is probably the best technology available to commercial Merino breeders at the moment.

“We just want to keep striving and keep improving. If you want to be a top producer you need to know the genetic make up of your flock and where you sit compared to the industry average – you can’t do that without this test.”

The Merino Flock Profile test can be purchased online at sheepdna.com.au.