Robert Hodgkins  -  Using genomic selection technology to advance the development of a ovine maternal breeding line

South of England Agricultural Society

31 year old Sheep farmer from West Sussex.

Locks Farm is a tenanted 1,400 acre farm, most of which is situated within the South Downs National Park. 90% of our grassland in permanent pasture and is the farmed under the South Downs ESA regime where no fertiliser or chemical is permitted, therefore there is very little we can do to manipulate or extend our grazing season.

Productivity of some of the swards would be considered very low – the ESA agreement stipulates an annual maximum stocking rate of 3 ewes per acre. The farm rises up to 783ft above sea level, and field contours range from flat ground at home to steep banks upon the downs.

We are large commercial family run sheep farm running 3000 plus NZ Romney ewes. The farm is a spread out unit (25 miles round trip to visit every flock) on good to mediocre grassland, land class 3-5. We operate a single breed, closed flock and take great care and interest in selecting future progeny to make shepherding as enjoyable and stress free as possible.  We are one of the largest Signet recorded flocks in the country, single sire mating and recording over 1500 ewes and there progeny per year.  We sell high quality, NZ Romney rams and females, this year we have sold around 110 2 tooth rams, and all of the breeding females (800+) we had for sale.

Project Details

Study: Using genomic selection technology to advance the development of an ovine maternal breeding line.

I believe the NZ Romney has a huge part to play in the future of British farming and my ambition is to push the NZ Romney as a possible solution to the 2 biggest problems effecting British farming today:

1. The average age of a British farmer is 55 and rising; if we were to look at the sheep sector it would probably be even higher. As an industry we are dying, we are failing to attract enough high quality new entrants who will be needed to drive forward the industry over the next 50 years. You will only make the sheep industry more attractive by providing it with a maternal ewe with the capacity to look after herself including lambing outside (cold weather tolerance genes) with high disease resistance (e.g. Foot root resistance genes) and minimal shepherding requirements. Sheep farming has to allow a work/life balance, the old model of working 70 hour weeks with your only reward being to turn a large subsidy cheque into a small subsidy cheque is not sustainable!

2. Educating people that the single most important part of their farm is “cost of production and margin". The markets price per kilo is a figure you have no control over at all. The way support payments are calculated in the future with an emphasis on environmental protection or food production - this is if there is even a payment at all - is something there is little control over. The one controlling factor you have is producing your product for the lowest possible price; in my eyes that is forage based animals, which require low levels of shepherding and minimal interference. Robust selection of stock with the right genetics to address these problems is key to a viable sheep farming sector.

I passionately believe I have something to offer the British farming industry, in terms of the animals I sell - through importing the best genetics from the stud flock of NZ largest ram seller, combined with our own large numbers of sheep, rigorously Signet recording and high selection pressure. I am confident I already supply some of the lowest cost of production sheep. A Nuffield Scholarship will enable me to offer the industry stock not only selected on the Signet EBV’s (estimated breed values) but also selected using there MBV’s (molecular breed values) using genomic selection to identify difficult to measure traits or traits that aren’t apparent until much later if life leading to much higher performing sheep that are available to be utilized in a seriously compressed time scale through being able to select rams as soon as a blood sample is available, and then being able to dispense those genetics in a large population of sheep through AI, and traditional mating.

Australia and New Zealand are already embarking on DNA testing for MBV's and have been for a few years now, but you cannot simply just take their research. To take proper advantage of this technology within Europe you would need a few major points in your favour, the major one being: New Zealand /Australian ovine genetics. Because each breed of sheep has a slightly different DNA make up you can only make predictions using this method if you have a large data group from which to compare it to, the minimum number of sheep is recommended as somewhere between 2500-4000 animals with more animals giving increasingly more accurate results. For example because 70% of the NZ flock is Romney to use this technology commercially (for example through Pfizer Sheep50K analysis) you need a NZ Romney, Coopworth or Perindale (Romney crosses now separate breeds in their own right) with NZ genetic material.

My plan is to travel to these countries, learn what they are doing and build on their experience/learn from their mistakes and then bring back this technology and use it not only to benchmark our flock against the very best NZ has to offer but also utilise this new technology and use it to help refine my own selection criteria for our and our Clients rams.

I am very grateful to be sponsered by the south of England Agricultural society