New research looks at lamb gene markers

Professor John Hickford from Lincoln University will lead the research team.

A new research project will examine the feasibility of growing lambs with more intramuscular fat.

Gene markers that are known to influence intramuscular fat levels are the focus of the industry-led research project that has attracted a $174,400 grant from the Sustainable Farming Fund.

Southdown breeders, Romney and Texel breeders, Lincoln University and Alliance Group are also contributing to the project.

Lambs with higher levels of intramuscular fat can be slower-growing, but could also attract a premium price because they produce better eating quality meat, says John Bates, who spearheaded the funding application to the Sustainable Farming Fund on behalf of industry representatives.

Intramuscular fat is influenced by feeding systems, maturity and the genetic makeup of the animal. This project aims to identify which animals will produce higher levels of intramuscular fat with optimum feeding systems, says John.

“What we hope the research will quantify is exactly which gene markers best influence intramuscular fat and to what level.

“New Zealand’s farming system is geared toward producing lean lambs that grow quickly and that’s how farmers are rewarded. A move away from this model needs to be economically viable for farmers, processors and the industry as a whole.

“If farmers were to be rewarded on intramuscular fat level, it sends a different market signal. “Farmers will respond to market premiums and in the long-term we could see certain lamb finishers using certain breeds or lines of lambs for certain markets – if the price is right.”

Partnership in this project between breeders, farmers and processors is really important, says John.

“Farmers need to have confidence in what we’re doing if they are to implement change and Alliance has already shown a willingness to differentiate on the basis of eating quality.

“Having breeders, farmers and processors in on the ground floor of this research ensures it’s geared toward what the industry wants.”

The first two years of the research will investigate five specific gene markers in more depth to assess which have the most effect on intramuscular fat.  This work builds on previous research by Lincoln University.

“We know that these five genes influence intramuscular fat. This research will focus on quantifying what level of intramuscular fat gain can be made using a particular gene marker.

“Then the second half of the research will focus on economic analysis to identify what economic benefit is needed if farmers are to supply lamb on the basis of increased intramuscular fat.”

Professor John Hickford from Lincoln University will lead the research team, which will capture data from 3500 lambs – Southdown, Romney and Texel – based on properties around Canterbury. Research results will be published at the project’s completion, which is expected to take four years.


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