Date of this Version
Genetic parameters for a subjective milk score given to ewes within 24 h of parturition were estimated to determine the usefulness of milk score as a selection trait to improve milk production, which influences total litter weight weaned. Heritability of milk score and the genetic correlation of milk score with litter weight weaned were estimated by REML separately for four sheep breeds, Rambouillet (n = 1,731), Targhee (n = 1,638), Columbia (n = 1,731), and Polypay (n = 1,129). Litter weight weaned was the total weight of lambs weaned at approximately 120 d of age under a western range production system. Observed heritability estimates for milk score at first parity were moderate and similar among breeds, ranging from 0.18 to 0.32. Heritability estimates adjusted for a binomial distribution of milk scores at first parity were high (Columbia, 0.43; Polypay, 0.35; Rambouillet, 0.50; Targhee, 0.84). Estimates of observed heritability for second-parity milk score were moderate to high, ranging from 0.23 to 0.46. Milk score at first or second parity was genetically correlated with milk score records at maturity (third parity and greater), with estimates ranging from 0.69 to 1.00. Milk score and litter weight weaned were genetically correlated at first or second parity in Rambouillet (rg = 1.00) and Targhee breeds (rg = 1.00 and 0.61, respectively), but not in the Columbia and Polypay breeds. Estimates of heritability for lifetime records for milk score ranged from 0.16 to 0.26 across breeds. Estimates of genetic correlations of annual lifetime milk score records with litter weight weaned were high (Columbia, 1.00; Polypay, 0.81; Rambouillet, 1.00; and Targhee, 0.77). Repeatability estimates for milk score were similar across breeds, 0.23 for Columbia, Rambouillet, and Targhee ewes and 0.28 for Polypay ewes. Milk score measured at first or second parity may be a good predictor of future potential milking ability. Further, milk score can be used as a selection trait to improve maternal ability for increasing litter weight weaned. The need for increasing ewe milking performance and lamb growth rate at first parity in commercial range sheep production systems may be addressed by selection for milk score at first parity.