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Independent commercial data driving the Sheep Ireland €uroStars

The volume of commercial sheep data contributing to the €uroStar evaluations available to Irish sheep farmers continues to grow.

Almost 50% of performance data used for genetic evaluations is now sourced from commercial flocks.

These sources include;

  • The Sheep Ireland Central Progeny Test (CPT) flocks. Ewes in these flocks are intensively performance recorded by Sheep Ireland technicians throughout each year. All rams used are sourced from Irish pedigree ram breeders.
  • Teagasc research flocks in Athenry. All research flocks are providing detailed performance records to the Sheep Ireland database from rams being sourced from Irish pedigree ram breeders.
  • The Teagasc Better Farm programme flocks. These flock are providing commercial flock performance data to Sheep Ireland. All rams used in these flocks are sourced from Irish pedigree ram breeders.
  • Other commercial data sources include individual commercial sheep farmers supplying data to Sheep Ireland. Data is also being used from a number of our Agricultural college flocks.

Data from Pedigree ram breeders

Similar to all performance recording programmes across the world, Sheep Ireland accepts data recorded by pedigree ram breeders. One could argue that a ram breeders ability to provide truthful performance data is compromised due to their vested interest and desire to produce high index rams for sale. The benefit of a robust genetic evaluation system is that the impact of one (or more) breeders entering fabricated data is minimal given the many sources of data for all bloodlines. For most sheep bloodlines in any breed, there are multiple sources of data (i.e. many performance recording flocks will share related animals). These multiple sources for each bloodline being recorded severely impacts the damaging effect of falsified data input.

What does Sheep Ireland do to monitor and maintain the integrity of data?

  1. On a weekly basis, automated reports are monitored by Sheep Ireland staff. One such report produces a list of animals where growth rates have been recorded which are outside the normal expected thresholds. More often than not, these weight errors are due to genuine errors, for example where the incorrect weighing date was entered. These breeders are contacted by phone on a weekly basis to address these issues.
  2. Similar to all robust genetic evaluation systems worldwide, the Sheep Ireland genetic evaluation has a range of automated data checks built into the genetic evaluations. The assumption that all data recorded by a pedigree breeder enters the genetic evaluation is wrong. Where data recorded by a breeder lies outside of the expected/possible thresholds, this data is automatically excluded from the genetic evaluation.
  3. A key assessment of data quality used by geneticists worldwide is heritability. The heritability of different traits is an indication of the quality and truthfulness of data being recorded on any database. There are acceptable targeted heritabilities calculated by sheep industries worldwide and the Sheep Ireland heritabilites for all main traits are in line with the very best systems in other countries. Sheep Ireland calculate separate heritabilities for our commercial data and our pedigree data. Looking at Weaning Weight for example, the heritability of weaning weights in commercial flocks is 22.8% and 20.7% in pedigree flocks. This demonstrates that the data collected in pedigree flocks by breeders compliments the data recorded in the commercial flocks very closely. This indicates that the systems put in place by Sheep Ireland to edit out certain data (errors or falsified) is robust and is largely achieving its objective. This is not to say there are not improvements to be made. Fundamental to Sheep Ireland’s genetic evaluation process is working to implement additional measures to improve data quality.
  4. Data Quality Index (DQI). The DQI published for each individual performance recording breeder is a reflection of how engaged a breeder is with their performance recording. It is an indication of the volume of data recorded by a breeder, the timeliness of data recorded by a breeder and the quality of data recorded by the breeder. In terms of volume of data, it is important for any ram buyer that the breeder of that ram has recorded as much data as possible. The DQI is a reflection of this data recording effort. The timeliness of data recording is another critical measure of data quality. The quicker data is entered onto the Sheep Ireland database the better for all involved. There is a higher chance to address data issues and it ensures that end users of the genetic evaluation information are looking at the most up to date information possible. Finally, the DQI also involves data quality assessments. For some key traits there are acceptable variation thresholds expected. For these traits, if a breeders data does not demonstrate these acceptable variations, their DQI score will be affected. The DQI is a unique concept designed by Sheep Ireland. This concept is now one which is being considered by other genetic evaluation systems in other countries which is a further indication of its usefulness. The current Irish DQI solution is not the finished article. Since its introduction in 2016 it has been modified and improved upon by Sheep Ireland on a number of occasions. This improvement process will continue.
  5. Flock visits. As reflected on the 2019 LambPlus signup forms circulated to all pedigree ram breeders in November 2018, Sheep Ireland now insist on breeders granting permission to access their flocks at any point throughout the year. Sheep Ireland data recording technicians (currently employed to carry out data recording in our commercial flock programmes and Ultrasound scanning in pedigree flocks) will be visiting flocks with a view to helping breeders to improve their data recording in areas where weaknesses can be identified. These visits will also be used to capture data on some ‘hard to record’ traits such as some health traits etc. The decision to begin these visits was made by the Sheep Ireland board in November 2018 but has been in planning for quite some time. This action comes on the back of feedback from our industry stakeholders, LambPlus members and their breed society representatives.

Maintaining and improving the quality of data being used in the national sheep genetic evaluation is given the highest priority by Sheep Ireland. While Sheep Ireland have introduced our own initiatives, we also continually engage with the very best minds involved in genetic improvement programmes worldwide. We welcome any input and ideas from all industry stakeholders and our Sheep Ireland staff and board members are available for discussion at all times. Sheep Ireland can be contacted by email [email protected] or by phone on 023 88 20 451. Our board member contact details are available on the Sheep Ireland website.