The National Sheep Breed Improvement Levy was introduced in 2012 as a result of industry consultation to help fund the newly established Sheep Ireland. This funding has been pivotal to the success of the programme to date as it has enabled the expansion of services and knowledge transfer, ultimately leading to a more significant genetic gain of the national flock.
Since 2012, this Levy of seven cents for every animal processed has been collected by the four largest processors (Dawn, Kepak, Kildare, & Irish Country Meats) since its introduction.
From April 1st, the Levy will increase to fifteen cents for every animal processed at these plants. This increase will enable the National Sheep Breed Improvement Programme to continue expanding and developing its offering to the Industry, especially in several key areas that will be vital for the future, including the development of a breeding programme for our hill sector, identifying animals that produce less GHG based on their genetic make-up, and to breed animals that will be better adapted to the deal with the anthelmintic resistance issue that will be a big challenge for the whole sector in the years ahead. All of the farming organisations have been consulted with in relation to this change.
Since 2012, the National Sheep Breed Improvement programme has come a long way. The number of flocks signed up to LambPlus (The performance recording programme run by Sheep Ireland) has grown from 180 flocks to over one thousand flocks in 2022. Each year, the number of weights added to the database has doubled to 70 thousand per year.
Sheep Ireland has also introduced a genomic service that allows farmers to test their animals genomically without much complexity. This service has resulted in over 75 thousand animals getting genotyped to date, with almost 14 thousand animals genotyped in the last year alone. Genomics gives the power to predict and verify parentage, provide Scrapie genotype status and provide DNA information that can help predict how that animal (or their lambs) will perform in the future. This service is now widely adopted amongst the lowland pedigree ram breeders, with the hill ram breeders starting to become more familiar with it in 2023 to get their rams eligible for the SIS. Sheep Ireland subsidises lowland and hill ram breeders to help cover the cost of genotyping their animals. We want to be in a position to continue this subsidy, especially in the hill sector, which is just beginning the genotyping journey. The more animals that are genomically tested, the greater the benefit for the entire Industry, whether that be via more accurate parentage information to reduce inbreeding, the ability to breed for animals more resistant to scrapie, or to have more animals with genomic breeding values (Stars based on DNA) available.
Sheep Ireland launched a new Ram Search (www.ramsearch.ie) in 2015. The Ram Search allows farmers to search through all the performance-recorded rams in the country and find rams that best suit their needs for Free. Rams can be selected on Breed, Location and Star ratings and more. More functionalities have been added over time, with more features in the pipeline to be added in 2023 to facilitate the SIS. When this was first launched in 2015, the site had 20 thousand views in its first season, compared to 2022, it had over 100 thousand views. The increase in visits to the site demonstrates that farmer confidence in the National Sheep Breed Improvement Programme is growing, and more and more farmers are making direct use of the Ram Search and the EuroStars evaluations attached to the Rams.
One significant reason for the growth in the number of animals performance recorded each year is due to the changeover of all the flockbooks into the national database, instead of all being maintained separately. In 2013, Sheep Ireland hosted only three flockbooks. In 2023, every flockbook hosted in Ireland (Seventeen flockbooks) is on the national database. The consolidation of the flockbook data has wide-reaching benefits for the pedigree breeders and the broader Industry as a whole. The first benefit is that all the data collected for flockbook purposes is available for national genetic evaluation. As the flockbook data and the performance recording data are all stored on the same database, the breeder only needs to submit data to one system. It is then available to both the flockbook and the breed improvement programme, significantly reducing the administrative burden compared to having two separate systems. Having all the flockbooks involved also allows for greater development of the flockbook services, which increases the efficiency of the flockbooks, which results in more resources being available to promote and develop the breeds.
A central part of the National Sheep Breed Improvement Programme has been the Central Progeny Test (CPT). The CPT comprised of four large commercial flocks with a combined 2,100 ewes. These ewes were artificially inseminated every year with rams that had been used for breeding pedigree rams in the same year. The CPT farmers and Sheep Ireland Technicians intensively recorded the flocks throughout the year. With this data, we launched Across-Breed Genomic evaluations in 2021, the first sheep breeding programme in the Northern hemisphere to do so for meat sheep. This launch resulted in more accurate Stars on performance recorded rams and also demonstrated the maturity of the Irish breeding programme compared to our international counterparts. The structure of the CPT will continue to evolve and grow to ensure the maximum return on investment for the Industry via genetic gain.
Along with Teagasc research flocks and LambPlus flocks, the CPT has been a vital resource in collecting methane data on individual animals using portable accumulation chambers (PACs). To date, thousands of methane records have been collected on sheep that are also genomically tested and performance recorded. This has put Ireland in a solid position to launch a breeding value for methane production in the very near future. The Irish sheep sector can become a global leaders in this area by using methane ebvs in the national breeding programme to help meet our climate targets while also sustaining our level of output.
Sheep Ireland has a free flock performance recording App available for every sheep farmer in Ireland. The App allows farmers to record their flock’s data from mating, pregnancy scanning, lambing, weights, health, sales & deaths. Multiple reports across these critical areas can be viewed via the Sheep Ireland website. While the App is predominantly used by pedigree breeders, commercial flocks also use it as their free farm software. Sheep Ireland wants to continue developing this App to further reduce the barriers to data recording and collect more data for national genetic evaluations.
What has the National Sheep Breed Improvement Programme delivered for the Industry to date?
Research carried out by Abacus Bio in 2021 analysed the performance of the Irish National Sheep Breed Improvement Programme. Between 2014 (when the National Sheep Breed Improvement programme started to gather momentum) and 2020, the programme has added 17 Million euros of value to the Industry. If the programme continues to develop, it is predicted that between 2020 and 2040, it will deliver an additional 115 Million euros to the Irish sheep industry.
National benefits can be challenging to translate back into farm gate benefits. However, further research in 2022 by Teagasc and Sheep Ireland investigated the physical, financial and environmental performance of a low genetic merit flock (1 Star) and a high genetic merit flock (5 Star). The 5 Star flock produced an extra 0.17 lambs per ewe via increased lambing percentage and better lamb survival. Those lambs also finished 13 days faster than those from the 1 Star flock. When all the physical differences in performance between the 5 Star flock and 1 Star flocks were analysed, the net profit per ewe differed by €18 (€45 vs €27), which equates to a 66% increase in profitability per ewe. The final area investigated was the sustainability of each flock of ewes. Based on a life cycle analysis, the 5 Star flock produced 6.9% less GHG per Kilo of carcass produced. We expect this difference to become even larger after the introduction of the Methene ebv. This research is based on a commercial lowland system and data collected over the previous decade since Sheep Ireland was established. However, the same research and, therefore, the same benefits cannot be given to the Hill sector due to a lack of structure and data.
Despite previous initiatives, only 3% of the Pedigree flocks set up on the national database were from Hill Flockbooks in 2022, however according to the 2021 Sheep Census, 49% of the national ewe flock is classed as Hill or Hill Cross, and 18% of stock rams were listed as Hill Rams. So it is clear how under-presented the hill sector is in the National Sheep Breed Improvement programme. However, thanks to genomic technologies that Sheep Ireland has harnessed, the Hill sector has been included in the Sheep Improvement Scheme Breeding tasks. This will springboard the number of hill flocks on the database and increase the number of hill flocks that record complete ancestry information and performance data.
Where will the additional Levy funds be used:
- To ensure the long-term success of the hill sector breed improvement, Sheep Ireland would like to invest further in this area via genotyping subsidies and more human resources, both on the ground collecting animal data and in the office providing technical support.
- To identify the bloodlines that produce the least methane while sustaining the same level of output, we need to collect more methane data on an annual basis from a wide range of flocks with parentage information.
- We know that anthelmintic resistance is a big issue coming down the tracks. We know that breeding can help slow down that train. To be in a position to identify the bloodlines that produce the least number of worms, we need to capture FEC data on individual animals (e.g. CPT, LambPlus) on an annual basis. Sheep Ireland wants to invest in this area now.