Spine characteristics in sheep: metrology, relationship to meat yield and their genetic parameters
Donaldson, Claire Louise
The overall accuracy, efficiency and profitability of livestock improvement strategies can be greatly increased by incorporating quantitative genetics into livestock selection and breeding. Since the introduction of quantitative genetics, a range of traits describing the animal e.g. in terms of health, growth, fecundity, production, have been extensively evaluated in terms of genetics and are now commonly manipulated through breeding to achieve specific selection goals. An industry led enquiry as to the possibility of including spine traits in genetic selection to increase back length in sheep was the basis of the present thesis. Collecting information on spine traits (spine length, vertebrae length and vertebrae number) is of particular interest and use to the sheep breeding industry as there may be the potential to increase meat yield from the highly valuable longissimus thoracis et lumborum (LTL or loin), located parallel to the spine, with little associated change in production costs. The thesis focusses on the use of X-ray computed tomography (CT) scanning as a technique which would allow spine traits to be measured in vivo, hence being useful for genetic selection. The topogram scans produced from the CT scanning procedure were analysed to derive spine trait information for the thesis. The scans were from Scottish Blackface (maternal breed stock), Texel (terminal sire breed), Texel cross Mule and Poll Dorset cross Mule (three-way cross slaughter lambs) so as to represent the divergent genotypes found across the different levels of the United Kingdom’s (UK) three-tier crossbreeding structure of sheep. The present study explored as a first step intra- and inter-operator repeatability of assessment of spine traits from CT derived topograms, as a means to investigate the suitability of the approach for widespread uptake within industry where operators will vary. The results showed that there was high repeatability for intra- and inter-operator assessment of spine trait measurements verifying that the CT method could be accepted as a reliable alternative (to slaughter for example) to quantify spine traits. To determine whether spine traits are similar across the range of breeds representing the key genotypes and crosses in the UK sheep industry, numerous CT topograms were analysed. The results showed marked variation in spine traits within and between Scottish Blackface, Texel, Texel cross Mule and Poll Dorset cross Mule breeds and crosses. For example, the Texel breed was found to have the largest within-breed range for thoracolumbar vertebrae number (17 – 21; the majority possessing 19), but the spine length of these animals was, on average, significantly shorter than the other breed/cross groups. The present study concluded that the significant differences between the breeds and breed types for the particular spine traits were possibly indicative of a genetic control for these traits. Furthermore, investigation into the phenotypic correlations between spine and production traits revealed some directional associations which may prove beneficial for meat production. For example, Scottish Blackface lambs which had a longer length of a specific spine region had an associated decrease in the volume of carcass fat. Texel lambs which had a longer length of a specific spine region had a slightly larger loin muscle area, at a given weight. The present study also examined animals from a population of Texel lambs already heavily selected for increased muscling. The Texel muscling quantitative trait locus (TM-QTL), segregating in these animals and generally in the UK’s Texel sheep population, is expressed through a polar overdominance pattern of inheritance and its effect on the loin (localised muscle hypertrophy) is commonly utilised in the selection and breeding of Texel sheep to improve meat production. Examination of topograms from lambs bearing the whole range of TM-QTL genotypes showed little evidence to suggest that the change in loin shape/increased loin muscling, as a result of the TM-QTL and its inheritance, has led to any associated change in the underlying spine characteristics. This suggests that selection for increased muscling associated with the TM-QTL may be achieved independently of changes in the spine traits studied. The potential to breed for certain spine traits to increase vertebrae number and hence chops or loin yield can be enhanced by establishing the genetic parameters for the traits. The present study employed a collection of performance trait records from Texel lambs to provide the basis for genetic analysis. The results showed different levels of heritability for the different spine traits but also high standard errors. For example, heritability of vertebrae number was dependent on vertebra location: for thoracic vertebrae heritability was high (ℎ2 = 0.99; SE = 0.42), for lumbar vertebrae heritability was low (ℎ2 = 0.08; SE = 0.12), whereas in contrast, thoracolumbar vertebrae heritability was moderate (ℎ2 = 0.44; SE = 0.27). Phenotypic and genetic correlations between all combinations of traits were also obtained. Accurate predictions of the size and direction of response to selection can be achieved through such genetic analysis of traits. The more that is known of the genetic characteristics of traits and their genetic correlations with other economically important traits, the more efficiently it can be built into breeding programmes improving the overall performance of stock. The results of this study showed that providing spine measurements can contribute to the diversity of trait information available to breeders. The present study also suggests that there may be opportunities to select for increased spine length/vertebrae number which would benefit the sheep industry in terms of increased chop number/loin yield. Although more data are needed prior to implementation. Practical uptake of selection for spine traits would be enhanced due to the straightforward nature of the measurements and the high operator repeatability.