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IAEA Helps Small-holder Farmers to Improve Twin Births and Mutton Production in Local Sheep Flocks of South India


Sheep with crossbred twin lambs in the typical low input, small-holder production system of South India​.

There are over 65 million sheep in India. These are important animals for the livelihoods of many marginal and landless farmers. A large proportion of mutton production takes place in rural and hilly areas that are often characterized by small-holding size and limited resources. Sheep rearing is one of the main economic activities in these areas and is considered a potential tool for rural development and improving food security.

Sheep normally produce one lamb per birth, while twins or triplets are rare. For farmers with large sheep flocks, this is not an issue as enough surplus lambs are produced to raise for mutton production. In the case of small holder farmers whose flock size may consists of three to ten sheep, more lambs per birth can provide additional income and make sheep rearing more profitable.

Local sheep with twin lambs born under the marker assisted breeding program​me.

Scientists have long known that certain sheep breeds (Garole sheep in India, Boorola Merino in Australia, Han sheep in China, and others) have high genetic potential to produce twins and triplets due to the presence of a naturally occurring mutation called FecB. Thanks to advances in nuclear-related molecular technologies, it is now possible to select and breed such animals accurately, and improve their prolificacy (number of lambs born per birth), and hence mutton production.

Scientists from Tamil Nadu Veterinary and Animal Sciences University (TANUVAS) in South India helped local farmers introduce the FecB gene variant into their flocks. Initially, rams of NARI Suvarna (a composite sheep breed developed by Nimbkar Agricultural Research Institute, Pune, India) and homozygous for FecB (containing two copies of twinning variants) were used to breed local sheep. This resulted in the production of first-generation crossbreds that effectively produced twins and triplets. Breeding in subsequent generations was more critical, as the farmers needed to accurately identify rams and ewes that possessed the FecB variant for twinning. This was a complex process involving proper animal identification, data recording and DNA testing to find the appropriate genetic markers in animals for further breeding.

A scientist from Tamil Nadu Veterinary and Animal Sciences University, India interacting with a small-holder sheep farmer on breeding for improved prolificacy.

The Animal Production and Health Laboratory of the Joint FAO/IAEA Division recently developed a cost-effective, real time, polymerase chain reaction-based genotyping technology to accurately identify sheep carrying the twinning variant of FecB gene. Upon request, the technology package was transferred to Molecular Genetics Laboratory, Veterinary College and Research Institute, Namakkal of TANUVAS. Additionally, electronic animal identification toolkits were supplied to the project team for implementing a systematic marker-assisted breeding programme to improve prolificacy in local sheep. 

“The support from IAEA helped us to provide routine animal identification and DNA testing services to small-holder sheep farmers” said Prof. Murali and Dr. Saravanan Ramasamy of TANUVAS. The marker-assisted programme has significantly improved the breeding efficiency and enhanced the twinning rate in many sheep flocks of South Indian state of Tamil Nadu.  Naveen Kumar a small-farmer near Thuraiyur in Tamil Nadu said, “The new breeding programme for twinning has been very useful to me. I am now able to get 5-8 additional lambs every breeding season which, upon reaching market age fetches me an additional income of US$ 450 to US$ 700.”

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