SAN ANGELO — Lamb is not as common as beef or chicken on Texans’ plates. However, it could become more popular if a Texas Agricultural Experiment Station research project works out.
Dr. Dan Waldron, a geneticist, for the first time is studying the application of a major molecular genetic marker to increase sheep production. Genetic markers of this type can be observed from analysis of a blood sample.
Identifying genetic markers for certain traits in animals is not new to researchers, however, if this is successful, it could lead to increased lamb production and in turn, could lead to a more efficiency and increased profit in an industry that is struggling to survive. Consumers would benefit from the added variety and decreased costs of lamb cuts.
Waldron is evaluating two different genetic markers for their usefulness in increasing reproduction rates and their effect on other traits.
About 20 years ago, Australian researchers discovered there was a single gene that caused higher ovulation rates and therefore, resulted in more lambs born to each ewe. At that time, there was much interest in using that gene to increase lamb production in other breeds — such as the Rambouillet breed used widely by Texas ranchers. The Rambouillet is widely known for its fine wool production, ability to tolerate the hot, dry summers of the Edwards Plateau and West Texas and also for its low reproductive rates, Waldron said.
However, it was difficult to tell when a sheep had inherited that gene. “The only way to tell if a male had that gene was to measure ovulation rate or the number of lambs born to his daughters,” he said. “By that time, he’s four or five years old and if he doesn’t have that gene, then we’ve wasted a lot of time and effort.”
Then, in the early 1990s, scientists in New Zealand discovered the genetic marker could be identified by taking a blood sample. “That made it possible to predict which animals had the gene long before they reached reproductive age,” he said. In fact, the animals can be identified as early as 2 or 3 months old.
With his project, in part funded by the Texas-Israel Exchange Program of the Texas Department of Agriculture, Waldron is evaluating the effect of that gene on other traits — such as growth rate, wool production and lamb survival.
“Therefore, before we recommend to producers that they make this change and use this gene, we want to be confident that there will be no other major negative effects of using that gene. We want to look at the whole production system,” he said.
He is also cooperating with Dr. Elisha Gootwine in Israel, a country with a hot, dry climate similar to West Texas.
“Dr. Gootwine is also concerned with increasing reproductive rates in their sheep breeds that are native to Israel and are well- adapted to their conditions.”
If all works out as Waldron is predicting, this project could free up producers to concentrate on breeding for other traits, instead of the reproductive rates of their ewes and rams.
It is hoped by using these markers, commercial lamb production will become more profitable, he said.
For consumers, he said, “The lamb roast you go to buy in the store from sheep with this gene will be absolutely no different from any other lamb roast. But if the sheep producers can be more efficient, ultimately the consumer will benefit because that will help keep costs down.”
Additionally, Waldron hopes if sheep production becomes more profitable, then more people may get into that business. “Therefore, that lamb roast that you buy in the store will not be as rare and the price of the lamb roast will ultimately be lower.”