Ram progeny tests
French sheep and beef producers benefit from comprehensive breed improvement schemes. In the first of a series of articles Rebecca Austin reports on national sheep progeny testing programmes
SECURING the best rams to improve each sheep breed in France is the responsibility of all registered breeders.
Unlike the UK, where those that choose to join a progeny testing scheme are in the minority, most French breeders subject lambs to performance recording.
Use of AI, which is essential if ram performance is to be proven successfully, is much more popular in France than in the UK. Some 750,000 ewes (5%) are AIed each year, of which 250,000 are meat breeds. This figure has increased during the past five years.
One reason for this is funding. Ile de France breeders receive £62.80 for every ram progeny tested. A further £26.92 is given to the breed society which monitors the performance of final-selected rams.
The exact amount of funding is dependant on breed participation. To qualify 20% of registered ewes must participate in a scheme and this is monitored by the results which are published annually by breed societies. Even though the Charollais, currently the most popular terminal sire in the country, does not achieve this target, it is a localised breed and able to secure money via regional grants.
There are 11,800 registered Texel ewes, situated in 175 flocks throughout France. Their lambs, 4000 ewe lambs and 2000 ram lambs in 1995, are weighed four times every three weeks after birth on farm. The first two results will reflect the ewes milking ability and the latter two the lambs growth potential. These figures are sent to the National Institute of Agricultural Research (INRA), which collects the data.
At weaning, which is 110 days, the best ram lambs – which have achieved 300g/day daily liveweight gain – are re-assessed and 150 taken to Verdilly, the breed societys headquarters for further selection tests.
Again, they are selected on genotype and phenotype. They are also weighed and scored visually on muscular and skeletal development, breed type such as feet, legs as well as a straight back and then growth potential. This is repeated after 50 days, while final selection is 100 days after they have arrived.
Initially they receive 800g/day of concentrates while at grass, but this increases to 1kg a day by the end of the period. The aim is to expose any faults, such as backfat and skeletal weaknesses, in the breed by feeding them excessively.
Backfat and muscle development are measured using an ultrasonic scanner. This technique carries very little weighting in the final index. Visual appearance constitutes 75% and scanning only 25% as breeders, who dictate the breeds objectives, still believe conformation is the ultimate target.
In the past breed type, milking ability and prolificacy were the ultimate targets. Now the trend is towards meat quality, which requires exploiting conformation and breed type to the maximum. Once this trial is complete, the top eight rams are sent to Berry Test, Bourges, where they are progeny tested for meat traits.
Semen is also disseminated amongst breeders to qualify each ram on its maternal qualities. Breeders keep daughters and monitor their performance for milking ability through lamb weights at three and six weeks post lambing.
All information is collated as an index which is formulated by INRA. An index of 50 is considered to be average. Generally, 30% of ram lambs are eliminated and sell as fat, 30% sell to commercial breeders as terminal sires for £380 each, 30% sell at auction for breeders (£380-£750) and 10% are retained for more performance monitoring.
The latter group, which numbers about eight rams, is bought by Texel Genetique for about £640 each and have semen taken immediately which is frozen. Then all registered flocks will put between 20 and 30 ewes to each of these rams using AI. Although breeders buy semen – at £15 – £16 a straw for a proven ram – they are paid in kind as female progeny can be retained in the flock for free.
Once daughters have lambed only then can Texel Genetique evaluate the rams worth. In most cases this takes three years. A proven ram will earn his breeder £1.30 for every straw sold and usually produce 700 straws a year.
Breed performance using ultrasonic scanning at 163 days
Ile de France56.87.529.2
Ram lambs, belonging to Texel Genetique, and not selected for further progeny testing, are auctioned. In the sale catalogue each rams performance is listed alongside its breed index. A reserve is set at £300 and interested buyers must place their bid in an envelope as rams enter the ring.