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Beyond the Bale : September 2010
September 2010 BEYOND THE BALE 20 WOOL PRODUCTION With fertility now a major profit driver for all sheep enterprises, researchers are looking into how many lambs the Merino breed is really capable of delivering. With the national flock at century lows, and with sheepmeat demand so strong, the reproductive capacity of the Merino ewe has never been more valuable. Under optimal nutrition, adult Merino ewes can pregnancy scan in excess of 160 per cent and the Lifetimewool project has proven time and again the importance of having ewes in condition score three at joining. Many producers are now participating in Lifetime Ewe Management training to increase their numbers of lambs marked by up to 30 per cent. However, another area for further reproductive performance gain is through lambing Merino ewes at younger ages -- just as many prime lamb dams are being managed. NEW RESEARCH As part of a research-based Masters degree through the University of Melbourne, Mike Stephens & Associates consultant James Whale will explore the potential of breeding Merino ewes earlier. The three-year study, funded by the Sheep CRC and its participants, including AWI, involves on-farm trials with six producers using various Merino bloodlines. James will detail just what management practices and inputs are required to join ewe lambs every year and successfully lamb at 12 to 15 months of age. Ewe lambs will be randomly drafted off at weaning on each property and managed specifically to achieve minimum live-weight targets for joining at 7 to 10 months. These ewes will then be managed on pasture and supplemented with grain-based rations if required to meet body condition and Can Merinos lamb at 12 to 15 months? FAST FACTS l Research is underway to investigate the biological implications of joining Merino ewes to lamb at 12 to 15 months of age. l The research will include an economic analysis of the technique for commercial production systems. live-weight targets to produce optimal reproductive outcomes. Naturally, feed, genetics, climate and seasonal conditions are all vital ingredients to be explored, however there is one issue James is very keen to stick to: reality. "This has to be practical," he says. "This is not a lab experiment, it has to be able to be reproduced as part of normal farming practice and to that end all the trials are taking place on real farms and will involve commercially available Merinos. Obviously, getting young ewes to successfully rear a lamb at this age and avoid potential impacts on subsequent lifetime productivity will involve extra costs; this naturally is part of the study." James has been surprised to find some work on the subject was done in the 1960s and '70s. "Previous work shows the influence that the season of birth has on the age of puberty in the Australian Merino. It has been very interesting to reference this material but as you would expect, there have been some major advances in management, nutrition and genetics over the last 30 to 40 years, so I am looking forward to comparing my work with that earlier research." LAMB SURVIVAL As a BESTWOOL/BESTLAMB co-ordinator for the Kilmore and Seymour groups in Victoria, James is well aware of the need to see what the Merino is capable of. "This year we have had some great seasonal conditions leading up to ewe joining and Merino flocks have been scanned at levels beyond 160 per cent. These are great results, but the focus now needs to be on managing ewes for high lamb survival and through to weaning, and beyond. It is common to lose 30 per cent of lambs between scanning and lamb marking but there can be much variation around this average," James added. In some preliminary work already undertaken in one flock, there was large variation between sires and the ability of their daughters to conceive at a young joining age. With this understanding James' work will also investigate options for selecting early age of puberty genetics and how quickly this genetic trait could be advanced within flocks More information: James Whale: email@example.com, 0428 374 046; Lifetimewool project: www.lifetimewool.com.au; Lifetime Ewe Management training: www.sheepcrc.org.au James Whale is undertaking research into whether Merinos can be joined to lamb at 12 to 15 months.