‘Sheep of the Future’ Could be Transformational for New Zealand Sheep Farming

New Zealand State-Owned Enterprise Pāmu, the Ministry for Primary Industries (MPI) and Focus Genetics, a Pāmu subsidiary, with support from AgResearch, have joined forces on the innovative ‘Sheep of the Future’ programme.

The vision includes finer wool genetics (20-25 microns) that can be farmed beyond the arid areas that have traditionally been the home for Merino sheep, advances in strong wool breeds to increase disease tolerance, low-input traits to make farming less costly, continued breeding selection for animal growth and meat quality traits, and for rumen function with lower levels of methane emission.

Pāmu CEO Mark Leslie said: “This groundbreaking seven-year initiative aims to transform sheep-based production systems. It will lower production costs and enhance farming businesses’ viability while contributing to New Zealand’s environmental and climate obligations.”

Programme Manager Natalie Pickering from Focus Genetics said climate change is likely to have a marked impact on farms producing wool and red meat in New Zealand.

“Genetics provides an opportunity to select animals that are better adapted to the changing environment through disease and heat tolerance while maintaining productive performance and lowering emissions.”

The project, partially funded through the Sustainable Food and Fibre Futures fund, is expected to run until 2029. The collaboration sees an injection of NZ$10.5 million which will enable benchmarking, breed comparisons, research on new traits, and breeding programmes to develop fine-wool and no-wool sheep in New Zealand.

Methane Emission Outputs

At Pāmu farm Aratiatia near Taupō, the team is working with a fine-wool breeding flock alongside a control Romney line. Measurements for production, reproduction, survival, disease, and fine-wool attributes are being conducted, along with environmental assessments. The objective is to identify fine-wool attributes suitable for a temperate environment.

“Working with Dr Tricia Johnson, Team Leader Animal Genomics at AgResearch, we saw an opportunity to generate a resource to enable us to investigate the genetic variation in the no-wool and fine-wool breeds. AgResearch has done great work on methane, residual feed intake and genomic selection for the New Zealand sheep industry and we can leverage this work,” Natalie said.

The programme also includes a feasibility study led by AgResearch’s Dr Kathryn McRae, who will explore immune competence in New Zealand sheep. Immune competence is the ability of the animal to mount a healthy immune response following exposure to bacterial or viral infection. The study aims to define a measurement tool for immune competence that can be incorporated into breeding programmes.

Researchers will also take emissions-related environmental measurements, including residual feed intake and methane outputs. This workstream will result in the development of a method for measuring heat tolerance, which will be a crucial trait as weather becomes potentially more extreme.