Farming: Helping livestock sector move to net zero farming

Breeding more efficient sheep selected for specific traits, including mature ewe weight and lamb survival, along with the ability to thrive on grass and forage is one recipe for helping the livestock sector move towards net zero farming.

Revealing a breeding programme designed to help flockmasters move in this direction at a recent open day, the sheep genetics company, Innovis also highlighted recent research from New Zealand which showed that targeted breeding could result in sheep which naturally produced less methane from the grass they ate.

Speaking at the home of the company’s nucleus flock at Southfield Farm near Hawick, on Buccleuch’s Borders Estate lead geneticist, Dr Janet Roden said that Innovis was seeking to

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build many of these important traits into their sheep breeding programme.

Fronting the project which aims to breed sheep with a lower carbon footprint, she said that these animals varied widely in terms of methane production.

“In simple terms, the more sheep eat, the more methane they produce, so our breeding objectives are focused on producing more efficient sheep that give more output without increasing inputs in order to benefit both the environment and the bottom line.”

As part of this, the company’s breeding objectives were focused on improving production efficiency from grass and forage:

“All Innovis’ breeding flocks amounting to 11,000 ewes are managed and measured in forage based commercial production systems so that the animals that thrive under commercial pressure in large flocks can be identified.”

She said that this data collection had helped Innovis to identify and incorporate into its breeding programme four important traits which would benefit a farm’s carbon footprint.

Dr Roden said that one of these traits was hitting the sweet spot for ewe weight – which was important with the project aiming for lighter ewes which could still produce quality lambs and retain body condition over time.

“For example, the Aberfield’s genetic improvement over the last five years has seen a 4% increase in lambing percentage, 16-week lamb weight has increased by more than 1kg per lamb, with lambs having better muscling and lower faecal egg counts, whilst at the same time, average ewe weight has reduced by 1.2 kg.”

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Lamb survival was another key focus area as was ewe longevity - with both a greater number of lambs making it from conception to sale and lower flock replacement rates having a positive impact on carbon footprints.

“Body condition score is another important area and we have introduced an estimjated breeding value (EBV) to help identify ewes that can maintain their condition while also being productive and efficient in the commercial systems we are testing them in.”

She said that this would soon be incorporated into all the maternal indexes.”

“Genetic improvement in these traits will all help towards reducing the farm’s carbon footprint at the same time as improving the bottom line,” said Dr Roden,”and because the improvement is cumulative and permanent it offers a long-term, cost-effective way of helping the sheep flock become part of the solution towards reducing the environmental impact of our farming systems.”



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