Sheep

A recently awarded grant will help commercialize a genetic test for sheep.

A project to provide genetic testing for sheep to help producers minimize diseases and improve valuable traits will receive a grant from the Idaho Global Entrepreneurial Mission Council.

The $209,595 grant to University of Idaho animal science professor Brenda Murdoch and Meridian-based Rile Ag will help sheep producers employ an inexpensive test to reduce economic losses to diseases and enhance their flocks’ productivity, UI said in a news release.

Idaho’s sheep industry ranks sixth nationally with 1,200 producers and 255,000 head of breeding sheep and lambs. Rile is a subsidiary of Superior Farms, which works with sheep producers responsible for a third of the nation’s flocks. The Idaho producers are part of the Superior supply chain and are critical to the American sheep industry.

Murdoch said the grant will help producers capitalize on a low-cost genetic tool to make genetic and economic gains in their production systems.

She is fine-tuning the Flock54 genomic test, which provides a broad picture of a sheep’s “catalog” of genes. Gene variants or mutations can improve an animal’s weight gain and carcass quality, or make it vulnerable to diseases such as Ovine Progressive Pneumonia — an example of a disease the test can detect.

“I am excited for Rile Ag and Superior Farms to continue our partnership with Dr. Murdoch at the U of I to enhance and improve genetics within the American lamb industry,” Lesa Eidman, director of producer resources and sustainability for Superior Farms, and director of Rile, said in the press release. “The opportunity to improve the U.S. sheep flock with genetic improvement and Flock54 testing is tremendous, and I am excited to be part of this groundbreaking technology for the sheep industry.”

“This grant money will be a tremendous asset for further research and development of Flock54,” Murdoch said. “Specifically, it will allow her research team to increase the number of genetic traits reportable and create indexes for production traits that are so crucial to producers. The team will also create a new online reporting tool so that producers can submit data with their DNA samples and receive their genetic report via this new online tool.”

Murdoch told Capital Press that Flock54 looks at several traits, in contrast to single-gene tests. It is a 1,000-marker panel that “looks at about 1,000 different spots in the genome associated with disease traits we want to cull against, or economically important traits we want to select for” like meat quality or wool production. “The grant will help us validate more traits to deliver back to our Idaho producers.”

UI said at less than $20 per animal, the test can identify parentage, a broad range of genetic traits and susceptibility to major diseases like OPP. The disease can create major costs for sheep producers by reducing the number of lambs weaned by 8% and leaving survivors weighing 24% less. For a producer who markets 1,000 lambs a year at $1.50 a pound, the financial hit can total more than $37,000 a year — twice the cost of the testing.

Murdoch, an assistant professor of animal genomics at UI’s Moscow campus, helped develop the first genomic tests for cattle. She will monitor results from the sheep testing and use the information to identify other genetic traits of interest for producers.

Idaho producers using Flock54 genetic testing to date have been able to enhance breeding flocks, and cull low-producing and disease-susceptible animals, UI said. More than 10,000 samples have been submitted for testing within the first six months of the test becoming available, UI said.

The collaborators anticipate producers will submit 150,000 test samples within the first three years, generating $2.25 million to $3 million in sales, UI said. Within five years, the business projects 500,000 samples will generate $10 million a year, leading Rile to expand its lab and hire additional employees.

Idaho Commerce Director Tom Kealey said the IGEM funding will help advance the use of Flock54 genomic selection tool by Idaho’s sheep producers and others nationwide.

“The genome research is for much better yield for sheep ranchers and processors, but at a lower cost,” Kealey said.

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