Livestock

Australian DNA technologies changing production on the Falklands

Adam Dawes

The world-leading genomic research of Australia’s sheep industry is opening new export opportunities for genetics and advisory services in the Falkland Islands.

Sheep consultant Sally Martin, of Young, NSW, has been engaged by the Falkland Islands Government’s Department of Agriculture to work with local producers to enhance their sheep breeding programs, resulting in sales of DNA tests after it was identified the Falklands’ flock had strong connections to the Australian Resource Flock.

“They have quite a big ram breeding operation using Australian genetics that are recorded on the Sheep Genetics database, and because they are so closely related to our flock we will be able to use Australian DNA testing systems to provide them with genomic predictions,” Ms Martin said.

The small group of islands are a British Overseas Territory located in the South Atlantic off the coast of mainland South America with a sheep population of 490,000 head of mostly Corriedale and Polwarth, but with increasing Merino bloodlines, which are run across 81 farms totalling 1.1 million hectares.

Excluding fisheries products, their main export is wool, producing 1.7 million kilograms (greasy) annually, with an average fleece weight of 3.76kg and an average fibre diameter of 24.0µm.

However, the cold climate and poor soils are a major limiting factor for production, with only 301 ha planted to annual forage and 116 ha to improved perennial pastures planted in 2017.

As a result the Falkland Islands Government has been supporting an artificial insemination and embryo transfer program to provide farms across the Falklands with superior sheep genetics, including via its National Stud Flock, which has been sourcing semen from the likes of Australian studs Centre Plus, Anderson, Mumblebone, Karbullah, Moojipin and Trigger Vale.

Adam Dawes, Senior Agricultural Adviser to the Falkland Islands Government, said the Falkland Islands’ National Stud Flock was initiated in 1992 through the importation of 500 animals from Tasmania.

“Australian Merino genetics have been used in the National Stud Flock over the last seven or eight years in an effort to improve wool quality and fleece weight,” Mr Dawes said. “As a result, the value of the Falkland Islands wool clip has increased by 14% in the last five years, based on today’s prices, and this improvement is a direct consequence of improved wool quality that has resulted from the intensive genetic improvement program.”

In 2018 the DNA Parentage Test and 15K Sheep Genomic Test, developed by Australia’s Cooperative Research Centre for Sheep Industry Innovation (Sheep CRC) and Sheep Genetics, is being used to help accelerate the rate of improvement in the Falklands flocks.

Ms Martin said the first step in working with the Falklands industry was to identify its breeding objectives and profit drivers, before moving on to the technologies available to measure and record the data needed to make better genetic selection decisions.

All animals in the Falkland Islands’ National Stud flock are performance and pedigree recorded in order to generate Australian Sheep Breeding Values (ASBVs).

“Due to the extensive nature of production in the Falklands, regular stud practices like mothering up are extremely difficult,” she said. “With the combination of the current data they are collecting, improved pedigree using the DNA Parentage Test and the strategic use of the 15K Sheep Genomics Test they will greatly improve the accuracy of the ASBVs and save departmental staff approximately 25 days in the field each year.”

Mr Dawes said the next step would be to trial the DNA Flock Profile Test for commercial Merino breeders in the Falklands as the industry seeks better information to inform management options.

“While we have made significant genetic gains through the importation of more than 25,000 straws of Australian Merino genetics over the past 10 years, it is now time to collect and analyse data (including genomic data) to ensure that we are making the right decisions with the genetics that we already have here,” he said.

The ability to deliver the genomic testing to this British Overseas Territory in such a remote location was only made possible by the collaborations created between Australia’s industry, research sector and commercial partners.

The DNA samples provided by the Falklands producers will be sent the United States for processing due to Australia’s tight import protocols.

There the samples will be analysed by Neogen, the Sheep CRC’s commercial testing partner, whose Australian office organised the DNA analysis to be undertaken at its Nebraska labs, before the data is shared with Meat & Livestock Australia’s Sheep Genetics unit for final reporting.

Source: Sheep CRC