Potential boosts to deer industry from genetic gains

New Zealand’s deer industry has a bright future, in part because of the significant work undertaken by AgResearch scientists to boost genetic quality and animal health.

 Established in 2011, the Deer Progeny Test (DPT) project is aimed at better measuring the heritability of venison production traits within the national herd of farmed deer with a view to allowing commercial farmers to better utilise them to improve productivity and profitability.

AgResearch senior scientist Dr Geoff Asher says the DPT delivers significant ‘bang for the industry’s buck’ in determining the best target traits that farmers should select for when making profit-driven breeding decisions.

DPT data are complex and copious, consisting of information collated from three annual crops of progeny.  During this time populations of hinds were artificially inseminated to some of the top stags from around the country that  are  identified through the national deer genetics database called DEERSelect.

 This serves several functions, Dr Asher says.

“The first is that by using those stags across a common group of hinds and rearing the progeny across a range of different farms we get what we call ‘linkage’ where we can calculate the genetic merits of each stag across all farms rather than on just a single farm. This means that when farmers purchase stags with breeding values they know these values are directly comparable with values from other stags recorded on DEERSelect and the values will be relevant to any farm on which deer will be bred from those stags.”

The second function of the DPT was to look at deer traits that hadn’t been studied previously and this included ways to increase the yields of high-value cuts such as loin and rear legs relative to yields of the lower-value cuts such as shoulders.

To undertake this, male – and some female – progeny of the DPT were slaughtered and measurements made of their muscle distribution and quality. The concept was to identify heritable traits that could add value to the carcass and to understand the mode of inheritance of these traits.  The project found that the relative yield of the different muscles was different between stags’ progeny and highly heritable, without appearing to adversely impact on the expression of other useful traits such as growth.

One muscle trait in particular has opened eyes, because Dr Asher believes that for every 100g that could be added to loin muscle weight in relation to total carcass weight, a permanent gain of $1.1 million annually could be added to industry export revenues.

That means there is the opportunity for DEERSelect to also be used to select high-value primal meat weight over total carcass weight.

While the collection of data for the DPT project has largely been completed, work is now underway analysing – according to industry priorities – the complex data that are likely to offer increased opportunities and productivity for the deer industry.

 Benefit to New Zealand

Better measures of the venison production genetics available to the New Zealand deer industry allow for better decision-making behind the farm-gate, leading to higher production and profitability.  It is estimated that for every 100g of high value loin muscle added to existing total carcass weights in the sector, a permanent genetic gain of $1.1 million annually to export revenues from chilled venison would be expected.  With regards to industry growth rates, overall carcass weight, conception date and mature hind weight, it is estimated that permanent genetic merit economic index gains from the use of identified DPT sires has the potential to provide an additional $620,000 annual revenue nationally.  These values, based on genetic merit shared across 50% of national breeding hind progeny are considered conservative, and it is expected that on-going improvements in deer industry performance recording and increased uptake of DEERSelect as a genetics purchasing tool will increase this value of genetic improvement within the national herd.

Project Investment

Funding for the DPT from 2012 to 2016 will amount to $1.7 million from DEEResearch Limited (a joint entity owned 50/50 by AgResearch & Deer Industry New Zealand), Landcorp Farming Limited and Alliance Group. In addition, considerable collaboration and in-kind support has been received from deer breeders (‘Partner Herds’) and the Alliance Group that conducted data collection at slaughter and of meat quality.