QUALITY sheepmeat starts with management, writes BRIAN CLANCY
The saying goes "what you see is what you get".
Although that is not always the case for Merino rams, according to Alex Ball, head of Meat and Livestock Australia's sheep research and development.
"Eighty per cent of the most important breeding traits for wool and meat we can't see in a Merino," Dr Ball told producers at a North East Merino forum at Dookie College last week.
"Things you can't see are often the most important maternal traits - reproduction rates, mothering performance, fat and muscle and internal parasite resistance,"
In an address on what lies ahead for the sheep industry, particularly Merinos, Dr Ball defined the future of the Merino as "a maternal breed with wool capabilities".
But he said much needed to be done in the breeding program of the Merino which accounted for 78 per cent of national ewe numbers.
"Simply, you need to get meat into your thinking," he said.
"Don't worry about what they are called, worry about what they do.
"Eating quality really depends on how you manage a flock."
On the production of prime lamb from Merinos, Dr Ball said Merino lamb carcasses on average were 2kg lighter, yielding 2 per cent and averaging 40c/kg less than first and second-cross lambs.
All of these differences equated to a return of $18 less than from crossbred lambs.
But Dr Ball was confident Merinos can bridge that gap through management and breeding.
These include lifting lambing percentages to 130 per cent and aiming for carcass weight of 25kg by 8-10 months.
"Growth rates of 500grams/day are achievable," he said.
Merino lamb marking percentages are consistently 20-30 per cent lower than with crossbreds.
"Between scanning and marking there is a 35 per cent loss of lambs from Merino ewes. We need to address those losses," he said.
On eating quality or tenderness, research had shown that the Merino could often outscore the terminal and maternal breeds.
But he said breeders had to pay attention to muscling and fat cover which assisted in the the flavour and eating quality.
"Too much leanness is like eating cardboard."
Dr Ball said fat cover was critical in boosting fertility.
He even went so far to suggest that in future Merino rams without positive breeding values for both fat and eye muscle "should have their thoats cut".
Dr Ball said the sheepmeat returns should not be ignored by those Merino breeders wanting to ficus only on wool.
Even with running wethers for wool, the sheepmeat return still represented 35 per cent of returns.
Dr Ball said the future for the Merino breed looked promising, and also forecasting wider interest from cereal producers wanting to return to sheep.