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Genetics: a move in the right direction

Recent studies have proven that 5 star animals deliver more money to the bottom line

The sheep industry is facing challenging times, with increased input costs, resistance to parasitic infection treatments and pressures to meet greenhouse gas targets. While genetics are not the silver bullet, they are a proven solution.

Recent studies have proven that 5 star animals deliver more money to the bottom line

Words by: Kevin McDermott, Programme Manager for Sheep Ireland

The Irish sheep breed improvement programme, while relatively young compared to our international counterparts, can help tackle some of the biggest issues facing our farmers and wider industry today and in the future.

The programme is run by Sheep Ireland, which was established in 2009. Because the foundation of any breed improvement programme is data, a substantial database has been compiled over the past 14 years. It now has more than one million weight records, which are used in the weekly genomic evaluation. Ireland was also the first country in the world to include lameness, lamb vigour, barrenness and ewe mothering ability in the national breeding programme.

A recent study investigated how well the breed improvement programme was identifying the top and bottom performing animals. The study compared the physical, financial and greenhouse gas (GHG) performance of the top 20% (5 star) and the bottom 20% (1 star) genetic merit commercial ewes with full parentage recorded on the national database between 2018 and 2020, with over 380,000 production records included.

Physical and financial performance

The first study analysed the difference in physical performance between the two groups. The main differences were that the top group had an 8% greater lambing percentage (1.70 vs 1.84), 9.4% lower mortality from birth to 48 hours (6.5% vs 7.1%), and 6.5% reduced age at slaughter (203 vs 190 days).

The second study analysed the financial performance of the two groups. Taking all the physical performance differences from the first study and inserting them into the Teagasc Bio-Economic Model, the difference in net profit per ewe was 57% higher for the ewes ranked in the top 20% (€28 vs €44).

The final study investigated the GHG performance of the animals, based on the physical differences found in the first study. These differences were inputted into the Teagasc Life Cycle Analysis (LCA). The results showed that the high genetic merit flock had 6.9% lower GHG intensity than the low genetic merit flock per kilo of carcass produced.

Measuring success

The breed improvement scheme is measured by how much it delivers on industry targets. Our aim is to increase the profitability of the national flock, reduce welfare issues and help meet our national GHG targets.

There are a couple of key elements in achieving these goals: the Replacement and Terminal Indexes, designed and weighted using a bio-economic model to aid the selection of animals that will produce the best genetics; and genomic evaluations, introduced in 2020, which involve the use of DNA to predict how an animal and their progeny will perform.

It has never been easier for farmers to identify and source the right genetics for their flock. All the lowland breeds in Ireland now host their flockbooks on the national database. In turn, the star ratings are clearly visible at society sale catalogues for the performance-recorded animals. For farmers that prefer to buy direct from the breeder, ramsearch.ie is an amazing resource. This allows farmers to search for rams in their area that meet their requirements and look for local performance-recording breeders. 


LambPlus, the performance recording service offered by Sheep Ireland, has grown by 30% in the last two years, resulting in greater data collection and availability of performance-recorded rams.


Image credit: Patryk Kosmider/stock.adobe.com