A view on the new ewe

30 August 2017

A low, squat, ‘wide brick’ of an animal will be the efficient breeding ewe of 2027.

That's according to New Zealand-based sheep scientist Dr Mark Ferguson, who co-developed MLA’s Bred Well Fed Well program when he was an Australian-based researcher. He is urging Australian sheep producers to open their minds to this futuristic concept over the next decade.

“If we want to breed a profitable sheep, we must learn to like what it looks like,’’ he said, suggesting the drive for maternal efficiency and selection for muscling would change maturity patterns and shape.

“Mature ewe size is reduced, the face is plainer and the shape has gone from a big frame to lower, stockier animals.

"As we get into these ‘extreme muscling’ sheep, we are seeing animals with early maturity.

“They are positive for muscle and fat, and robust."

Mark was a keynote speaker at the recent Trigger Vale Genetics’ 2017 information day in southern NSW. He urged producers to use the upcoming ram buying season to invest in genetics to cope with an industry which will change rapidly in the next 10 years.

To get to this new-look, productive ewe, Mark said producers need to consider what traits they currently select sires for and how they will stand up to the industry demands which lay ahead.

“At ram sales, the biggest correlation with price is the weight of the animal on the day.

“As an industry, we are really good at selecting for big animals, but who likes handling big, stroppy 100kg ewes?"

In parallel with selecting for muscling, MLA research has identified the need to maintain a balanced focus on eating quality, a crucial trait for consumer satisfaction into the future.

Factors dictating the design of the ewe in the next decade, according to Mark, include:

Moving to next level productivity

Yearling fat depth will be a key selection trait in breeding ewes, along with genetic resistance to worms (to reduce drench usage) and footrot.

“Muscling is positively correlated to reproduction, worm resistance and wool staple strength,” Mark said.

"Yearling eye muscle depth will be the turbo-charger for the modern ewe." 

Demand for ethically and sustainably-produced meat

Consumer interest in organic, animal welfare friendly or low chemical input meat is growing quickly, Mark told producers.

“I see the rise of ethical products based on animal welfare and chemical use – big brands are developing this as their platform,’’ he said.

“In 10 years’ time, the scrutiny from activists is not going to disappear – only if brands step up and make them irrelevant through their own scrutiny on the industry.

“But there is opportunity in the sense that people want to connect with farmers, want transparency in the production system and know who is producing their fibre and food.

“If we get our story right and tell it well, it is a big opportunity for our industry.’’

Competition for the dinner plate

Another trend to confront lamb production, according to Mark, would be the plant-based protein movement.

“This is not a flash in the pan – it has billions of dollars’ worth of investment,’’ he said.

“People are producing meat without having any animals involved.

“They will take market share, but I don’t think they will wipe out meat consumption.

“The way these products are being marketed is about the footprint our animal industries have on the world."

Lessons learned:

  • Choose traits which impact positively on production.
  • Consider traits to breed sheep which are robust, easy care and require minimal animal husbandry.
  • Understand consumer preference.

More information

Dr Mark Ferguson
E: ferg.nextgen@gmail.com

Find out more about Bred Well Fed Well workshops.

Learn more about the impact of genetics on your flock with Sheep Genetics.

Take a short cut to finding the right rams with Ram Select.

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