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November 11, 2022

A focus on genetics has lifted Merino productivity as wool and other natural fibres enjoy a revival in place of synthetics, Sandra Taylor reports.

AS THE WORLD MOVES AWAY FROM its reliance on plastics and synthetic materials, animal production scientist Dr Mark Ferguson believes natural fibres are about to enjoy their time in the sun.

His mission is to ensure the sheep industry is well poised to take advantage of this reversal in fortunes and while Mark’s name is most commonly associated with fine wool sheep, particularly Merinos, his company neXtgen Agri, provides genetic and data management support and advice to farmers running sheep and cattle of all breeds.

Now based in Christchurch, Mark’s interest inbreeding and genetics began at a very early age growing up on a mixed-cropping farm in North west Victoria. At the age of 12, he was breeding Angora goats and a few years later, added Poll Dorset sheep to his breeding enterprise. By the time he was 18, Mark and his brother owned the farm’s almost 1000 Poll Dorset ewes and Angora does.

Mark attended university in Melbourne then became involved in the Lifetime Wool project which looked at boosting the lifetime production of Merinos through optimising nutrition from conception through to culling. This reinforced Mark’s interest in fine wool sheep and he followed his degree up with a PhD in Merino genetics at Murdoch University in Perth.

His knowledge and skills came to the attention of the New Zealand Merino Company and he worked as a consultant for the company before he shifted his family across the Tasman in 2012 to work for the company on a permanent basis.

In 2018, he started neXtgen agri which now provides consultancy services in every state of Australia and throughout NZ. “This includes helping with data management, genetic decisions and sourcing genetics, anything to do with breeding,” Mark says.

Over the past decade, he has noticed a significant increase in the number of fine wool producers making use of genetic information such as Estimated BreedingValues (EBVs) in their ram selection criteria and he believes there is scope to make even more use of these to lift productivity.

“We now have values for lamb weaning rate and wesee a huge variation in this trait, as much as 40-50%, so there is a lot of opportunity to improve in this area.”

He admits the majority of fine wool producers are farming in tough environments and weather will always be an issue, but even on the roughest days there will be lambs which survive and part of this is genetic.

Mark says the dial has shifted significantly on survivability in fine wool sheep and there are producers who are weaning 140% to the ram, on a par with crossbred and strong wool breeds, but this is as a result of looking at a range of traits, not just fertility.

“The move to positive selection for fat and muscle in the Merino ewe has underpinned this forward momentum in Merino weaning rates."

“If you can get the carcase, the feet and the skin right you can close that gap a lot.”

The foundation has been laid in proving the value of tools such as EBVs and data to help drive genetic gain and address issues such as footrot and this is a strong platform from which to look at other health and welfare traits, he says. These include internal parasites and dags as well as carcase attributes.

“The Merino’s primary purpose will always be to produce quality wool but if you can balance that with other traits, then it becomes a much more farmable and profitable breed.”

“The Merino’s primary purpose will always beto produce quality wool but if you can balancethat with other traits, then it becomes a muchmore farmable and profitable breed.”

Essentially it is about breeding a sheep that will perform well in an environment where animal welfare issues are increasingly under the spotlight and skilled labour is getting increasingly difficult to source.

“We’ve seen a big change in the past 10 years with most rams being sold with some data with them.

“As a result of this we are seeing massive shifts in production.

“Fine wool is leading other industries as far as data usage is concerned.”

To use data, it must first be collected and Mark has been instrumental in developing a piece of technology that could prove game-changing in identifying top performers in commercial ewe flocks.

Identifying mum and her lambs

Throughout his career, there has been a big focus on ewes and identifying the ewes that are the most productive and reproductive, Mark says.

On a commercial scale, it is impossible to identify which lambs belong to which ewe and this hinders the opportunity to find the best sheep in the mob.

He has tried using sensors, collars and tags over the years, but could not get them to work at the scale and simplicity necessary to operate at commercial scale.

He is now going down the line of facial recognition to identify which lambs belong to which ewe when they are in the paddock.

Four engineers are working full-time on the development of an artifical Intelligence-equipped camera, which, when set up in a paddock, will take images to identify a lamb’s unique facial features and link it to its mother.

As well as his own time and money, Mark and his team have received support from Callaghan Innovation as well as farmer investors to develop the technology which should be commercially available next year intime for the Australian autumn lambing.

He admits the technology is ideal for Australian conditions with their flat paddocks, but even on steeper terrain, which is where Merino ewes are typically run in NZ, there will be areas such stock camps or water sources where ewes and lambs will be passing through daily allowing images to be captured. “It’s like having a permanent shepherd in the paddock monitoring animal health and welfare. We aretraining the camera to see what a shepherd sees.”

Having the ability to identify the progeny of the best-performing ewes will allow commercial farmers to make significant progress in the productivity of their ewe flock.

Using genetic tools to improve Merino’s carcase traits and lamb survivability while reducing some of the costs associated with sheep, such as drenching and dagging, will increase the productivity and profitability of Merino flocks.

Mark’s optimism about the future of fine wool sheep is well-founded. The fibre is increasingly sought after by big corporates looking to use wool as an alternative to synthetics and this is reflected in the long-term supply contracts many NZ fine wool producers enjoy. The Australian auction market has been a bit variable lately, but generally that market has also been very solid.

There is a lot of interest in securing wool that meets the welfare and environmental credentials required by the top end of town and he believes genetics holds the key to continuing to produce wool in a sustainable and welfare-friendly way. The future for the breed looks very bright in a world reawakening to the attributes of fine wool.

This Article was published in the 2022 Merino Review, written by Sandra Taylor. NZ Farm Life Media.

Sandra Taylor
Article by:
Sandra Taylor

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