Timely genomic data provided by AgResearch to dairy sheep farmers is having significant benefit, particularly in this emerging industry with a small number of suppliers. In 2014/15 AgResearch invested Core Funding into looking at the ‘wider picture’ of the emerging dairy sheep industry from a genomics perspective.

“AgResearch had played a part since the beginning by importing the original East Friesian progenitors of the New Zealand dairy sheep flock,” says Senior Scientist Suzanne Rowe.

“So we did have some genetic information, but what we didn’t know is what had happened since and how those genetics had disseminated across New Zealand.

“We asked a few producers if they could send us their samples and with the Core Funding used genetic markers to genotype the samples. Through our collaboration with the International Sheep Genomics Consortium, we already had a map of markers for each breed. All we needed to do was get the New Zealand suppliers markers and map it to get the breed picture for New Zealand.”

Once this basic information was available AgResearch was able to assist farmers with their genetic decision making through cost effective analysis of their samples and comparison with the breed marker map. 

“One supplier had noticed significant variation between ewes in milk production,” says Suzanne.

“By sending samples in a section across their flock we were able to tell them quickly that the reason the low producers were low is that they had a low proportion of dairy genetics in them. That information was an important part of this season’s selection process on that farm.

“Another supplier had purchased semen from the original progenitor flocks. They ended up with lambs on the ground that they knew went back to a few key sires, but they did not know what lamb belonged to which sire. So by coming to AgResearch with samples from those lambs they were quickly provided with information around their parentage.

“We also did work for a company that had no pedigrees or other information available for decision making around mating; they couldn’t do it in a traditional way - it was either high tech or nothing.

“They had a number of ewes already milking, plus a number of rams available for this year’s mating, but they had no idea which would be the best to use. AgResearch detected the relationship of the young rams that they had just had born with all the ewes they had milking, including which had come from the highest producing ewes, and could therefore provide the supplier with the order in which they should be used for mating.”

Suzanne says that AgResearch has had good support from the industry, due in much part to the cost effective nature of the service and the speed that results can be delivered. 

“At AgResearch for a long time now we have been developing efficient, high throughput cost effective methods with practical applications. These developments have enabled us to successfully engage with the wider industry. Farms are getting this analysis on all of their animals, not just the high yielding ones which can be a very biased approach. It is good both for them and this emerging industry as a whole.”

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