Crippling footrot could become malady of the past for merinos
The perfect sheep: that's the holy grail scientists working for the New Zealand Merino Company (NZM) are chasing as they move a step closer to creating a merino that does not suffer footrot.
Using DNA testing, researchers can now accurately predict how resilient a sheep is to the crippling foot disease. Sheep breeders can use the information to selectively breed for greater resistance to footrot.
One of the outcomes is that the range of the breed might expand from dry high country to lowland regions, and its population could grow from 2 million up to 10 million.
NZM chief executive John Brakenridge said there was still a lot of work to do and it might take between five and 10 years before perfection was attained.
He estimated footrot costs New Zealand's fine wool sector up to $10 million each year in lost productivity and treatment.
In time the merino will become a dual purpose fine wool/meat animal with a lower environmental footprint than the dairy cows it might replace.
"It will take time, it's not just one simple thing, it takes a huge amount of work. The Government and the primary growth partnership (PGP) we've formed has been absolutely instrumental in allowing us time to do this," Brakenridge said.
Fine wool - which covers the gamut from the ultra fine 12 micron fleeces used in expensive Italian suits to the 19-23 micron for sportswear - fetches a 500 per cent premium over coarse crossbred wool.
And within the fine wool market, the fleeces for sportswear are in most demand as more and more consumers buy products that companies such as pioneer Icebreaker manufacture.
NZM is working with companies such as Reda in Italy and NIKKE Group in Japan, with New Zealand merino fibre playing a leading role. They are also investing heavily in research and development in textiles to find new uses for their fabrics.
Demand for fine wool suits has tailed off in recent years as the fashion industry has become more casual.
Brakenridge said a lot of different components had to be brought together to create an improved breed.
"We've had to bring in estimated breeding values (EBVs), central progeny testing, offshore talent, to establish an EBV for footrot. There is going to need to be more science, but this DNA test is one of the most significant individual steps we can make."
He did not close the door to crossbreeding the merino with other breeds.
"As time goes on it will be what is the definition of a merino. We don't have to stay on a purist track, we're also open minded to use genomics and other scientific tools to be able to get this fine wool animal that has the crossbred characteristics of meat and fecundity."
The NZ Sheep Industry Transformation Project was launched four years ago through the Ministry for Primary Industries' PGP programme, in partnership with NZM.
To gather the data required for the project, NZM production science manager, Dr Mark Ferguson, in collaboration with merino stud breeders and farmers from across the merino industry, created the world's largest single-site central progeny test (CPT) for merino sheep.
"Through the CPT, we have been able to determine the genetic resistance of rams to footrot by testing the performance of their progeny in the same environment".
"Using this data, we have generated breeding values for footrot resistance. With each year of the CPT, we are building a bigger, richer data set, which is improving the accuracy of the footrot breeding value," Ferguson said.