Report Synopsis

Selection for efficiency: breeding better beef and sheep

Neil McGowan

There is a need for keener cost-control in the UK beef and sheep sectors. In beef systems feed costs are paramount, and ease of management is often the limiting factor in sheep systems. Cow and ewe efficiency and sheep ‘operator comfort’ are worthy approaches to tackle these challenges. The genetics to drive these approaches have been somewhat ignored.

This study was to identify how to measure feed intake, test and select breeding bulls for feed efficiency. Additionally, what efficiencies could be gained from scale in breeding programmes and how to run a bull or ram sale to encourage best practice in terms of genetic gain and animal development resulting in genetic value for clients? In short, how to become better breeders of more efficient beef cattle and sheep.

I travelled to Canada to understand selection for feed efficiency; America to see it in practice and understand how large recorded herds work. I went to New Zealand to see ram breeding and selling on a large scale, but found a different approach to cattle efficiency; and finally, Australia, where I was curious to explore where feed efficiency research started. I visited mostly with stud breeders, also breed associations, genetics service providers and research institutes.

There are large gains to be made in selection for feed efficiency. The effect on the cow is not yet fully understood but indications are largely positive. It is equally important to select for other measures of efficiency such as limiting mature size, focusing on longevity and fertility. Whatever we select for, we must incorporate some form of regulator to performance in our programme – we can’t continue to select for output without thinking about inputs.

I discovered that scale of breeding programme has a lot to do with speed of genetic progress, but that speed is only relevant once direction has been established. And direction is only any good if there is an end-point or destination in mind. Sometimes successful breeding is about staying where you are and avoiding making mistakes. Stud breeders must focus on client profitability, turn that into a breeding objective, build a breeding programme to fulfil it and follow that stubbornly. There is a responsibility to learn to become better equipped breeders.

Selection for efficiency is about merging economics and genetics. These two make uncomfortable bedfellows. The geneticist will know that great leaps forward are made by those who don’t count the cost. The economist will know that there is no such thing as a free lunch, and that for every gain there is to be made, there will be a cost to pay at some point. The cattleman will know that neither of them is likely to pick the right bull anyway. It all comes down to him to learn from both, build a balanced breeding programme and become a better breeder

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