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Improve Productivity on Irish Sheep Farms through better Genetics

Sheep production is a significant contributor to the agricultural and national economy with an output valued at €209 million, with about 80% of this exported. This was one of the key messages at the Teagasc National Sheep Conference which is taking place in Athlone today, Tuesday, 4 February and tomorrow, Wednesday, 5 February in Letterkenny, County Donegal. The conference in Athlone was addressed by the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine, Simon Coveney TD.

Dr John McEwan, from Agresearch in New Zealand spoke about the future prospects for genetic improvement in sheep. He pointed to the gains that genetics has already delivered in terms of increased numbers of lambs born, improved lamb survival, higher weaning weights, heavier carcass, reduced carcass fat, and heavier fleeces.

Teagasc researcher, Dr Noirin McHugh said that genetic evaluations are a powerful tool for sheep farmers enabling to make more informed breeding decisions and potentially increase productivity and profitability at farm level.

Damien Barrett, from the Regional Veterinary Laboratory in Sligo outlined the results of their monitoring of Schmallenberg virus and the threat it poses to Irish sheep flock. He stated “There was little or no evidence of further spread of the virus during 2013 contrary to what was expected. The Regional Veterinary Laboratories are interested submissions of deformed new born lambs and calves so that we can continue to monitor the prevalence and trends”.

Teagasc Director, Professor Gerry Boyle emphasised the importance of active participation in Discussion Groups which have been shown to be a most effective way of getting new technology adopted on farms and subsequently translated into increased productivity and increased farm income.

Teagasc Sheep Enterprise Leader, Michael Diskin said that new research programmes on finishing hill lambs, meat quality, genetic improvement, and grassland science are all underway and are important for the future of the Irish Sheep industry. “We are ready now to embark on a new sheep breeding initiative at Teagasc Athenry with the establishment of genetically elite Suffolk and Texel flocks drawing on the best genetics from Ireland, the UK, and New Zealand.”

Head of Sheep Knowledge Transfer in Teagasc, Michael Gottstein said that this conference has afforded delegates the opportunity to hear at first hand expert speakers from both Ireland and abroad on the important themes of flock health and genomics which are critical to every sheep farmers business.

The Teagasc National Sheep Conference is sponsored by MSD Animal Health.