Sheep producers can now select for eating quality traits

08 July 2016

Sheep producers now have access to new breeding values for eating quality, as well as world first indices that bring these traits together with productivity traits, into balanced indexes.

This important breakthrough has been made through combining the use of DNA testing of animals with extensive consumer meat testing.

Work on developing automated carcase measurement in abattoirs, which may lay the basis for payment systems that reward quality lamb, will potentially provide enormous benefits to commercial lamb producers who can target more precisely the genetics that will meet consumer needs.

This important step is the result of a long-term research collaboration between Sheep Genetics (funded by Meat & Livestock Australia and Australian Wool Innovation), the Cooperative Research Centre for Sheep Industry Innovation (Sheep CRC) and the Animal Genetics and Breeding Unit (AGBU), along with direct involvement of hundreds of sheep breeders across Australia.

The new eating quality traits are designed to allow producers and breeders to better balance genetic improvement in efficient growth and lean meat yield with eating quality, ensuring that Australian lamb continues to meet or exceed consumer demand for an excellent and consistent eating quality experience.

The research and development has been integrated into Australian Sheep Breeding Values (ASBVs), and are now available through the LAMBPLAN and MERINOSELECT databases at

Professor Julius van der Werf, Program Leader of the Sheep CRC's Genetics program, said almost a decade of work has gone into investigating carcase quality and meat attributes in lamb. 

“Many traits have been measured, such as dressing percentage, carcase fat and lean meat yield, intramuscular fat and colour and tenderness of the meat,” Prof. van der Werf said. 

“We now have detailed information on these traits, measured on approximately 16,000 animals in specially-developed industry resource flocks, first in the Sheep CRC Information Nucleus flock, and since 2012 in the MLA Resource flock.

“Over the past 25 years, industry has used breeding values for growth, leanness and muscling to make major progress in improving growth rates and muscle with a higher lean meat yield percentage.

“Since 2010, MLA and the Sheep CRC have engaged taste panels to find out what lamb meat attributes are well liked by consumers, and whether we can breed for those attributes. 

“We found out that the eating quality of lamb is mainly determined by intramuscular fat and tenderness. Therefore, selecting for lean meat yield alone would affect eating quality.”

AGBU Director Dr Robert Banks said that through the collaboration, they’ve been able to develop an index to improve lean meat yield while improving eating quality at the same time, so producers can select for both sets of traits – achieving more balanced genetic progress in efficiency and eating quality together.

“Breeders can now obtain a breeding value for carcase and meat eating quality traits by sending in a blood card sample for a genomic test,” Dr Banks said.

“To enable breeding value predictions for these new lamb quality traits, AGBU has developed a sophisticated procedure for genetic evaluation, where traditional information on trait measurement and pedigree on hundreds of thousands of animals is now combined with information from DNA testing in a world first across sheep and beef genetics testing.

“Information from the new eating quality traits from the DNA test is combined with measurements on growth and carcase of the breeding animals. The result is that young rams with a genomic test can be given reliable predictions of breeding value for lamb carcase and eating quality traits.”

Sheep Genetics Manager Hamish Chandler said both developments have undergone extensive testing.

“The main benefit of the new genomic analysis is that it is a single step analysis that allows us to calculate the new carcase and eating quality ASBVs for a much wider group of animals and we can therefore calculate indexes that include these traits,” Mr Chandler said.

“Selection of stud rams based on carcase traits and meat eating quality is hard, as they can obviously not be measured for such traits. 

“However, all the thousands of animals measured in the Sheep CRC Information Nucleus and the MLA Resource flock were DNA tested. Work from the Sheep CRC has shown that the breeding value of animals can now be predicted with a DNA test.”

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