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Food, fibre and pharmaceuticals from animals
RESEARCH ARTICLE

Weaner survival is heritable in Australian Merinos and current breeding objectives are potentially leading to a decline in survival

S. F. Walkom A D , A. N. Thompson B , E. Bowen C and D. J. Brown A
+ Author Affiliations
- Author Affiliations

A Animal Genetics and Breeding Unit, University of New England, Armidale, NSW 2351, Australia. (AGBU is a joint venture of NSW Department of Primary Industries and the University of New England).

B School of Veterinary and Life Sciences, Murdoch University, 90 South Street, Murdoch, WA 6150, Australia.

C Sheep Data Management, 14 Goonawarra Street, Wagga Wagga, NSW 2650, Australia.

D Corresponding author. Email: swalkom@une.edu.au

Animal Production Science - https://doi.org/10.1071/AN17151
Submitted: 14 March 2017  Accepted: 8 August 2017   Published online: 20 November 2017

Abstract

There is little evidence to show that mortality rates during the period after weaning are improving over time in Australian sheep. The average mortality rate of Merino lambs during the post-weaning period has been estimated to be 5.2%. The present study explored the potential for producers to breed for improved survival rates during the post-weaning period and the potential impact this would have on key production traits. A total of 122 526 weaner survival (mortality) records were obtained from 18 Merino flocks, between 1989 and 2014, encompassing a wide variety of Australian Merino sheep types and production systems. The heritability of weaner survival from a sire model was estimated to be 0.07 ± 0.01 and was significantly greater than zero. The survival of lambs post-weaning was significantly influenced by weaning weight, with higher survival rates observed in the heavier lambs. The phenotypic relationship with weight indicates that selection for heavier weaning and post-weaning weights, and in turn larger growth rates, will improve survival rates. There is genetic variation in weaner survival not explained by the relationship with weaning weight. Weight-corrected weaner survival was antagonistically genetically correlated with fleece weight. Due to these antagonistic genetic relationships selection based on popular MERINOSELECT indexes is leading to a very small reduction in the survival rate of lambs after weaning through to the post-weaning stage. To prevent a decline in weaner survival, producers are advised to record weaner survival and include it in their breeding objective.

Additional keywords: Merino, index selection, weaning weight.


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