Improved Animal Genetic Programs Can Combat The Effects Of Climate Change

Improved animal genetics promises to revolutionize the global food production system. Throughout history, this has been illustrated clearly in small ruminants. Selective human breeding has created sheep and goat breeds able to thrive in harsh climates and rugged terrain. In light of the current challenges of climate change and the reality of greater instability, these animals offer an example and a path for sustainable and efficient food production systems. By adopting improved genetics, farmers can maintain their livelihoods and provide food for communities even while dealing with extreme weather events and changing weather patterns.

Data is the first step

As the clock ticks and the need for sustainable solutions intensifies, data to identify the required genetics is the first step. Within the landscape of small ruminant production breeds in the United States, several stand out for their registries and industry’s data collection programs. These data collection and evaluation programs are available across multiple protein production models and breeds of sheep and goats. By consolidating and organizing concise generational data, they enable producers to calculate reliably predictable transmission rates of characteristics such as milk production and parasite resistance.

Recognizing the need for comprehensive data for reliable and consistent breeding outcomes, the National Sheep Improvement Program created Estimated Breeding Values or EBVs. These values are science-based, industry-tested measurements of heritable traits that can be tracked and measured, including but not limited to fleece quality, weaning rates, and parasite resistance. Therefore, this program has resulted in clear breed-specific long-term improvements, as shown by NSIP-enrolled Polypay breeders increasing the breed average for pounds of lamb weaned per ewe by 13 pounds and Katahdin breeders demonstrating an increased 5% weaning rate (weaning rate represents the number of animals of a flock’s lamb crop reaching market weaning age) and breed leadership, spearheading a national effort to develop resistance to internal parasites. These improvements, however minor to a layman, mean increased animal health and higher profit margins for producers.

What The Future Holds By Using Improved Animal Genetics

With more efficient production, fewer resources are required for the same or greater outcomes, cutting water use and reducing the cumulative carbon footprint of the farm. More efficient use of fodder, another benefit of more productive herds, is significant as those crops will also be under pressure from temperature and rainfall changes. Improved genetics also allows producers to integrate genetic traits such as parasite resistance or heat tolerance more quickly, in almost real-time, in response to currently unforeseen climate change responses, exponentially improving animal welfare outcomes and output. With these factors in mind, programs pinpointing and empowering animal producers’ genetic choices will determine the future of sustainable climate-smart national and regional protein production programs.