Jo Newton (far left) with Wool Young Farming Champions Bessie Blore, Melissa Henry, Adele Offley and Cassie Baile
Jo is one of 10 people in the Art4Agriculuture team who have been listed in the Women in Australian Agribusiness 100
Jo Newton with her beloved sheep – Photo Matt Cawood
Check out what Jo has been up to ……
I’ve always been a problem solver and liked asking lots of questions so I guess it was no great surprise to my family and friends that I decided to embark on a PhD as its essentially 3 years of problem solving and answering (or trying to answer) questions. My family and friends accepted my passion for sheep a long time ago though I often find that people in agriculture are surprised to learn I am from Melbourne with no background in agriculture.
My PhD topic (or big “problem”) that I’m researching is the variable success rates for early reproductive performance in sheep. What do I mean by that?
Traditionally in Australia ewes are first joined to rams when they are 18 months old so they have their first lamb at 2 years of age. If we can successfully breed ewes so they have their first lamb at 1 year of age we are cutting one whole year from the production cycle which has several potential benefits for the Australian wool and sheep industry and farmers. However, one of the current challenges with breeding ewes at younger ages is the big variation in the percentage of ewes that fall pregnant. Last year we had a range from 0% to ~90% of ewes pregnant in 1 year across the different farms I’ve been working with.
For the last 2 years I’ve been working on 2 main aspects of my project. Firstly I’ve been collaborating with a number of sheep studs across Australia to collect data on joining ewes at 7 months of age. Thanks to the cooperation of numerous farmers we have been able to record live weights, condition score and collecting blood samples from young ewes. We then monitor these ewes to see which ewes have lambs. Last year we took measurements on 4000 animals!!! This year I get to start analyzing all this data. However, the drought has impacted on the number of ewes that we had in our study so we are also collecting data for another year.
The other aspect of my work I have been working on is an analysis of some historical data. This is data which has been collected on a 8 research sites around Australia as part of the Sheep CRC Information Nucleus Flock. As my research is centred around genetics a big chunk of my time is spent in front of a computer writing computer programs. I’ve been estimating heritabilities to determine what proportion of the animal’s expression of a particular trait (i.e. whether it has a lamb) is due to it’s genes and what proportion is due to the environment. Estimating genetic and phenotypic correlations between different traits enables us to work out which traits might be linked or “correlated” to one another.
At the moment I’m doing some simulation work. What this means is that I have a virtual flock of 300 ewes sitting on my computer. I’m using my virtual flock to test different breeding program designs. I’m changing things like flock fertility, the age rams & first have lambs and whether animals have genomic information or not. I’m then comparing my different scenarios to work out which ones result in the most genetic progress for important traits. Whilst it would be great to test these things on actual sheep to measure and compare genetic progress would require years and years of waiting whereas I can get results in about a week from my virtual sheep flock! This is all possible thanks to the enormous amounts of assistance, support and encouragement I get from my supervisors Sonja, Daniel & Julius and all the staff at UNE, CSIRO and AGBU.
The next 12 months as I aim to wrap up my PhD are going to be busy and I will probably encounter a few hurdles on my way. However with the support of my peers, family, friends, supervisors and staff I know that I can make it though.