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What are your breeding objectives?

25 July 2019

By Adrian Smith
Senior Land Services Officer
Mixed Farming Systems

A herd of cattle.Often when we think about buying a new bull or ram, we are purely focused on animals (or their traits) that will make us (more) money or improve production.

However, it is equally important to consider things that might save money or time, and even more importantly, things consumers want to buy.

A very interesting presentation I attended from a world-renowned geneticist, Dr Mark Ferguson from neXtgen agri, outlined four key things to consider about your livestock breeding plan:

1. The traits that make you money

2. The traits that save you money

3. The traits that save you time

4. The traits that delight your customer

I think there may be a fifth, which is the traits that motivate you as a producer – there’s not much point producing something that you’re not passionate about.

You should also remember the way your animals express themselves is not just a reflection of their genetics, but also the environment in which they live. The best-bred animal raised in the upper Murray may not perform as well if it were raised on the rangelands west of Moulamein!

As Dr Ferguson explained, it’s not about breeding the perfect animal, it is about breeding YOUR perfect animal!

Making you money

We often think from a genetic perspective of traits that make us money – producing more product, producing it faster or producing it more efficiently. All of these are noble (and very practical) objectives, but if these objectives come at the cost of something else, then you need to be a little cautious.

While topping the market with the biggest animal can make us feel really good (and give us something to boast about when talking with our neighbours), what often drives the profitability of our animal enterprise is the number of animals sold, or the reproductive rate or efficiency of the enterprise. So if the higher growth rate comes at the cost of fewer animals sold, from a business perspective are you really in front?

Do you have enough time?

Those of us who farm aren’t usually found sitting on the front verandah looking for something to do!

Where livestock is concerned, there are some jobs that we have to do no matter what. But there are some animals that have the genetic makeup to look after themselves a little better than others. Animals that require fewer inputs (such as labour, animal health treatments etc.) have significant benefits, both to themselves and the farm business. Remember, most things that cost you time are also costing you money!

The point is, don’t just consider higher production when choosing your genetics – things that make your life easier might just be saving you lots of time (and money).

Do you know what your customer wants?

Whatever we’re producing, we need someone to actually want to purchase and consume it!

Ensuring the end user enjoys the experience of consuming or wearing what you produce is really important. And as consumers become increasingly discerning, this will likely become more vital.

The other aspect is that consumers are becoming increasingly aware of how we produce what we do, and want to know more about how our animals were produced. If our animals require fewer chemicals to grow and thrive, it may help in future marketing of what you produce.

These are important characteristics to consider when developing your breeding objectives.

Do what you like

Having said all this, there’s no point doing something you don’t like. If you have a passion for what you’re doing, you’re more likely to do it well and be successful at it. Remember, your animals will be a reflection of their genetics, and the environmental conditions they’re subject to – which includes how you manage them.

How can I improve my breeding?

Think about the five key aspects outlined. Prioritise the traits that are important and valuable to you and your business. Focusing on one particular trait or aspect may lead to compromises in other areas. On the other hand, breeding for too many traits can also be problematic and difficult to achieve improvements in all. A balanced breeding plan and objective(s) is the key.

Making genetic gain is the important outcome of any breeding plan. And genetic gain is about making good decisions on a consistent basis. Chopping and changing from year to year on your objectives will not result in the best outcomes. Have a long-term objective(s), and select animals that will help you get there.

A good place to start is to use Estimated Breeding Values (EBVs) or Australian Sheep Breeding Values (ASBVs). These allow producers to evaluate an animal's genetic potential for a range of traits. EBVs are calculated based on the pedigree and performance data of a sire's progeny and family in relation to a range of traits.

Having identified the important traits, producers can then select breeding stock with high EBVs for their desired traits.

Used alongside the important or desirable visual qualities, this additional genetic information can help producers choose the best animals for their particular enterprise and circumstance.