Effective breeding programmes
Dairy sheep breeds selection

Une lactation moyenne de 288 litre en race Lacaune
Une lactation moyenne de 288 litre en race Lacaune - Crédit : OS Lacaune

France is a major European power in the production of ewe’s milk, due to the world-renowned quality not just of its AOC cheeses but also its genetics offer. The big 5 French dairy sheep breeds are all managed under selection programmes whose results have placed France among the sector leaders worldwide.

 Major genetics progress at a regular pace

The effectiveness of these genetic selection programmes and their coordinated group-led organizational framework has made it possible to deliver substantial genetics-driven progress. The Lacaune breed provides perhaps the best illustration, as ram stud genetic merit on the "milk yield" per ewe trait has climbed an average 5.3 litres per year, which equates to a total gain of 110 litres in just 20 years! Over the same period, milk butterfat and milk protein content have risen 0.19 g/L and 0.16 g/L per year, respectively.

More recently, there has also been significant genetic progress on functional traits since the selection programme was extended to integrate mastitis resistance in 2002 and then udder conformation in 2004.

These major genetics-driven improvements, delivered at a regular pace, have enabled each breed to achieve world-class milk yield performances: 288 L for Lacaune, 193 L for Red-face Manech, 167 L for the Basco-Béarnais, to name but a few. These results are further strengthened by a remarkably rich milk solids content (in the Lacaune breed for example, 73 g/L is milk fat and 55 g/L is milk proteins).

 Very-large-scale programmes

Genetic improvement of dairy ewes in the three major sheep breeding pools in France hinges on the selection of local breeds in their respective ’home’ territories: the Lacaune breed in and around Roquefort, the Basco-Béarnais, Black-face Manech and Red-face Manech in the western Pyrenees, and the Corsican breed in its native island.

The primary genetic selection objectives for each breed are evolved over time in response to the policy decisions of each breed’s own Selection Organization. For the Lacaune breed, the pattern has been increasing dairy yield (in the 1970s and 1980s), then milk composition and cheesemaking capacities (1990s), and finally, since the early 2000s, improving functional traits (machine milkability, female-line fertility, resistance to diseases such as mastitis).

With 860,000 ewes registered under milk inspectorate records schemes (full official or simple-version milk records), France’s national herd is Europe’s biggest performance data-tested herd. More than two out of three French dairy ewes are registered in technical monitoring schemes.

"Selector" breeders all complete official milk recordings (the French ’CLO’ scheme). This scheme extends to all milk-producing ewes. Within the Lacaune breed, all bred ewe-lambs undergo an udder morphology assessment (teat scoring). "User" breeders get to complete simplified-version milk records (the French ’CLS’ scheme) designed with a dual objective of i) intra-herd selection and ii) data integration into the technical support process.

 Highly stringent selection for breedline animals

With 490,000 purebred animals artificially inseminated every year, AI has become the norm ― and in the process has overcome numerous sheep-specific constraints. The very tight conservation window for using fresh semen (optimally within 5 to 8 hours) makes it essential to prepare and inseminate immediately after collection. Nevertheless, French Selection Businesses are able to hit success rates of 55% to 75% according to breed and female profile (adults or primiparous ewe-lambs).

Selection population base farms for each breed make extensive use of AI (30% to 80% of ewes depending on breed), providing a platform for creating and subsequently generalizing genetic improvement.

The 2,500 best young rams sired by planned mating in these farms are selected at weaning to be pooled together on breeding stations, where they will all be reared under the same conditions up to 6 to 8 months of age. This phase serves to fully control veterinary health across this ram pool and to run pre-selection on non-dairying traits (growth and gain, breed standard, conformation, and reproductive efficiency).

Leading out of this breeding phase, the top quartile of these young males, i.e. over 700 rams, is shortlisted for progeny testing. On the basis of recordings on the performance of all their daughter offspring, the final 250 best-performing rams are type-proofed as breed improvers for use as breed-standard AI stock sires.


Key figures

  • IN 2011 :
  • 3 663 farms under milk recording system
  • 862 000 ewes under milk recording system
  • 481 000 purebred females inseminated
  • 2500 rams with on-station performances evaluation
  • 715 rams with progreny testing
  • 250 rams selected for animal insemination
  • A average anual genetic progress of 5,3 liters (Lacaune breed)