Review of the genetic improvement of beef and sheep in the UK



This review was undertaken with a focus on genetic improvement in the UK sheep and beef industries. An economic assessment found that there is a large economic benefit to UK sheep (£10.7 million annualised) and beef (£4.9 million annualised) farmers from genetic improvement. Nevertheless, the realised returns from genetic improvement are substantially below their potential. In particular terminal-type breeds have been used increasingly to generate replacements for the ewe flock/ cow herd with detrimental effects on the performance of the maternal ewe flock/ cow herd. Consultation via a visit, as well as a substantial survey of industry participants, indicated a significant pool of engaged breeders and farmers, who believe in objective measures of prediction of genetic merit and who see potential in genomic technologies. A proviso is that visually-observed characteristics of animals are attributed comparable importance to objective measures by many survey respondents. Respondents highlighted several areas for potential improvement:

  • education and extension programmes underpinned by demonstration farms and informed by a demonstration of the impact that genetic improvement has on profitability of commercial farms, using simple tools
  • a change in the way that sires are marketed, with an increase in on-farm sales (as distinct from auctions) of rams and bulls, combined with the better use of information on genetic improvement, reduced emphasis on the CAP, and direct incentivisation of ram buyers
  • better commercial data (via progeny testing) captured using systems with very good quality control and accurate identification of animals using EID
  • the development of a centralised multi-species database.

This report contains a number of recommendations that if implemented, could substantially lift the future economic benefits realised from genetic improvement. While considerable attention is given to the opportunities from genomics, it is important that new investment initiatives to support implementation of genomic technologies are also considered in terms of their potential to:

  • enhance conventional genetic evaluations
  • generate high quality (unbiased) datasets and systems that improve the robustness and accuracy of estimates of genetic merit
  • improve the understanding and recognition of the value of genetic progress across the industries
  • broaden the scope of traits under improvement, with a particular focus on maternal traits such as fertility, fecundity (sheep), mature weight, and body condition score (mature female fatness level), and trait phenotypes sourced from abattoirs including both disease traits and meat quality traits
  • enhance communication and extension of the principles of genetic improvement, to facilitate uptake and therefore dissemination of genetically-improved males
  • maintain and enhance the support structures for genetic improvement including organisations providing services to breeders, and the underpinning genetic evaluation systems

In conclusion, genetic progress has and continues to deliver substantial genetic progress to the UK sheep and beef industries. While new genomic opportunities offer the potential to enhance these rates of progress, it is important that new industry initiatives to support genomic selection consider the ongoing need for farmer and breeder confidence in estimates of genetic merit for objective traits, and in the quantity, quality and relevance of data that contributes to these estimates. New and expanded structures where industry sires contribute to intensely recorded herds and flocks, with a strong focus on maternal trait recording, should form a significant basis of future developments. Collaboration with meat processors and encouragement of information sharing for genetic improvement purposes should open opportunities for improvements of eating quality and some disease traits. There is substantial potential to increase the rate and value of genetic progress being achieved. Because genomic prediction is not effective when applied to sets of animals distantly related to resource animals with both genotypes and phenotypes (including when trying to predict across breeds), it is important that new initiatives are not solely dependent on genomic selection delivery to achieve favourable industry outcomes.

AHDB is now considering the recommendations from the report and the priorities for future activity.

Beef & Lamb
Project code:
01 September 2014 - 31 March 2015
AHDB Beef & Lamb
AHDB sector cost:
Total project value:
Project leader:
AbacusBio Limited


74404 Final Report May 2015

About this project

The Problem:

EBLEX (and previously MLC), through Signet Breeding Services and direct investment in R&D, has invested in the genetic improvement of cattle and sheep for several decades. The resulting genetic progress delivers a substantial direct financial benefit to beef and sheep farmers. These benefits were last estimated in 2006/2007 (Amer et al., 2007).  In recent years, however, the delivery of recording services and genetic evaluation of beef cattle has been undertaken by an increasingly complex range of organisations. This project will develop an updated estimate of the financial impact breed improvement is having on the industry.

In addition, there is growing interest in the potential for genomic technology to be used to enhance the genetic progress being made in beef and sheep breeds in the UK. This potential has not yet been captured through the incorporation of genomic data into breed evaluation schemes.

This project will, therefore, review the provision of resources to support breed improvement in the UK and explore potential models for the delivery of more rapid breed improvement.


Aims and Objectives:

  • To determine the financial benefit of breed improvement (an update of the estimates made by Amer et al, 2007).
  • To assess the strengths and weaknesses of the current structure of breed improvement services in the UK.
  • To explore how the potential benefits of genomic technologies can be captured for the UK sheep and beef sectors.



The approach will entail the following:

Rate of genetic gain

1. update the model established by Amer et al in 2007 with estimates of genetic trends, information on the breeding programs in place and distribution of breeds and types within species;

2. assess the potential rates of genetic gain using current technologies (BLUP-based methods) and the potential for genomic technologies to enhance the rate of gain;

3. assess  how genomic technologies are being applied in the genetic improvement of livestock in selected areas (e.g. dairy cattle, beef cattle or sheep in up to three countries);


4. present a cost-benefit analysis for the application of genomic technologies in the red meat industry in the UK; this will also provide a framework for the assessment of the value proposition for the structural changes within the industry required to deliver genomic technologies;

5. present  a cost-benefit analysis without the application of genomic technologies, but with focus on further genetic improvement on the current scale;

Strengths and weaknesses

6. investigate  the current structure and functionality of breed improvement services in the UK; identification of potential changes necessary and/or beneficial for the implementation of genomic technologies;

Potential best practices

7. define  a framework for the evaluation of alternatives for the application of genomic tools in systems to accelerate genetic gain, including the collection and analysis of phenotypic data, the utilisation of males to provide connectedness between herds, the structure of the sheep and cattle populations, and the genotyping of influential individuals;

8. define  a method to identify appropriate price points (targets) for technologies with the objective  of facilitating uptake of genomic technologies within the industry;

9. assess the potential for the application of genomic technologies through the value chain to provide additional value through traceability of products.