New mastitis phenotypes suitable for genomic selection in meat sheep and their genetic relationships with udder conformation and lamb live weights
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Mastitis can prove expensive in sheep reared for meat production due to costs associated with treatment methods, poor lamb growth and premature culling of ewes. The most commonly used method to detect mastitis, in dairy systems, is somatic cell counts. However, in many meat-producing sheep flocks ewes are not routinely handled, thus regular milk sampling is not always possible. It is therefore worthwhile to investigate alternative phenotypes, such as those associated with udder conformation and methods of evaluating somatic cell counts in the milk, such as the California Mastitis Test. The main objectives of this study were therefore, a) to estimate genetic parameters of traits relating to mastitis and udder conformation in a meat sheep breed; b) estimate the level of association between somatic cell counts and the California Mastitis Test and c) assess the relationships between mastitis and both udder conformation and lamb live weights. Data were collected from Texel ewes based on 29 flocks, throughout the UK, during 2015 and 2016. The ewes were scored twice each year, at mid- and late-lactation. Eight different conformation traits, relating to udder and teat characteristics, and milk samples were recorded. The data set comprised of data available for 2 957 ewes. The pedigree file used contained sire and dam information for 31 775 individuals. The animal models used fitted relevant fixed and random effects. Heritability estimates for traits relating to mastitis (somatic cell score and the California Mastitis Test), ranged from 0.08 to 0.11 and 0.07 to 0.11 respectively. High genetic correlations were observed between somatic cell score and the California Mastitis Test (0.76 to 0.98), indicating the California Mastitis Test to be worthwhile for assessing infection levels, particularly at mid-lactation. The strongest correlations observed between the mastitis traits and the udder conformation traits were associated with udder depth (0.61 to 0.75) also at mid-lactation. Moderately negative correlations were also observed between the mastitis traits and teat angle, with those estimated at mid-lactation ranging from -0.41 to -0.55. Negative phenotypic correlations were estimated between mastitis and the weight of lamb reared by the ewe (-0.15 to -0.23), suggesting that lamb weights fell as infection levels rose. Genetic correlations were not significantly different from zero. Reducing mastitis will lead to improvements in flock productivity and the health and welfare of the animals. It will also improve the efficiency of production and the resilience to disease challenge. The economic benefits, therefore, of these results combined could be substantial not only in this breed but also in the overall meat sheep industry.
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