How Genomic Testing Can Improve The Health Of Your Flock

How Genomic Testing Can Improve The Health Of Your Flock

Animal Welfare and Sustainable Farming Practices

Producers invest significant time, effort and resources into ensuring the overall health and vitality of their sheep because it has a significant impact on their overall productivity.

The use of genomic testing can play a powerful role in assessing flock health and productivity by providing valuable genetic information about individual animals within the flock. Producers are able to use this information to make informed breeding decisions that improve flock performance and contribute to a more sustainable future for sheep farming.

This blog highlights some of the ways genomic testing can increase the welfare of Australia’s sheep flock and improve the efficiency of livestock production.

The benefits of genomic testing

Traditional selective breeding methods have shaped how we can use genomic testing results to encourage desirable gene expression within a flock. These methods allow us to selectively avoid traits that may be considered undesirable and identify desirable ones, allowing for informed breeding decisions to be made that can enhance disease resistance and encourage faster genetic improvement.

Australian Sheep Breeding Values (ASBVs) are an effective tool that sheep producers can use to select rams and ewes to genetically improve their flocks. ASBVs describe a sheep’s breeding value for a certain trait, such as fleece weight, body weight, fibre diameter, internal parasite resistance, and wrinkle and breech cover, and express the relative breeding value of sheep across different breeding flocks of that breed.

Improving productivity and efficiency of resource use

Healthy animals that are optimally fed according to their productive and reproductive status are better supported to perform to their genetic potential. Employing genomic testing in sheep production systems to identify and capitalise on these genetic attributes has the potential to improve product quality, on-farm efficiency, and profitability.

By selecting animals using ASBVs for traits that are geared towards feed conversion efficiency and liveweight gain, producers are able to achieve faster genetic improvement, which also increases productivity and the efficiency of resource use. Economically, this can contribute to cost savings in the long run, with less feed wastage due to optimised feeding. At the same time, it also benefits the health of the animal by avoiding under or over-feeding, leading to improved animal welfare.

Improving wool quality

Wool production is one of Australia’s largest and most important forms of land use, with Merino sheep making up around 80% of the Australian sheep population. The health of an animal has a significant bearing on the quality and/or quantity of the wool produced. For example, it has been shown that reducing worm burden using anthelmintic treatment will result in an increase in the amount of wool produced and impact the fibre diameter of the wool. Likewise, there are fleece characteristics, such as brightness and low fibre diameter, that are correlated with the prevalence of fleece rot and footrot, which reduces the liveweight of the animal and thus the amount and quality of their wool.

With the rise of genomic testing becoming an increasingly powerful tool for selecting animals for a targeted breeding objective, it is possible for breeders to select animals with the genetic propensity for health factors such as worm resistance or disease resistance, in combination with fibre quality breeding values. This information, as well as the observation of on-farm visual traits and measurements, such as liveweight and feed conversion efficiency, is beneficial in early selection and targeted breeding.

Increasing disease resistance

Genomic testing offers significant benefits for improving resistance to infectious diseases in sheep, impacting both the immediate health of a flock and the long-term resilience of a breeding program. Through genomic testing, it is possible to identify individual animals within the flock with greater natural disease resistance using various genetic markers linked to resistance against common sheep diseases like footrot, mastitis, and internal parasites. This also allows the selection of resistant animals before disease exposure, leading to quicker improvements in the flock’s health.

By identifying disease-resistant animals or those that carry advantageous genes, it is possible to create a program specifically aimed at breeding new generations of disease-resistant livestock. This calculated approach to cultivating genetic variation promotes long-term genetic improvement, reduces reliance on medication or other interventions, and increases disease resilience.

Reducing dependence on medications

Selecting animals with natural genetic resistance to diseases minimises the need for antibiotics and anthelmintics to treat infections. It is well documented that overuse of antibiotics and drenches contributes to antibiotic and anthelmintic resistance. Genomic testing can assist in identifying animals with the genetic propensity for resistance against common sheep diseases.

Using these insights to inform your breeding program can lead to fewer instances of illness and reduce the need for antibiotics and other medications to be used in the production system. This serves to improve the welfare of the flock and reduce input costs associated with the treatment of such diseases.

The role of XytoVet

Genomic testing in sheep is an important tool that empowers producers to optimise their animal breeding programs, improve flock performance and resistance to livestock diseases, and contribute to a more sustainable future for sheep farming.

XytoVet is a leading provider of genotyping services for sheep in Australia. We specialise in genomic testing and use a 65K array that feeds directly into the Sheep Genetics Australia database. Contact us today to find out how we can help your flock.

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