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Weaner Survival is Heritable in Australian Merinos and current breeding objectives are potentially leading to a declines in survival

Samuel Walkom , Andrew Thompson , Elise Bowen , Daniel Brown


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 at 5.2%. This paper explores the potential for producers to breed for improved survival rates post-weaning 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 at 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 the antagonistic genetic relationships index selection based on popular MERINOSELECT indexes is leading to a very small reduction in the survival rate of lambs after weaning 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.

AN17151  Accepted 08 August 2017

© CSIRO 2017