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CT Scans Help Sheep Farmers Find Best Rams

April 8, 2011
Written by: , Filed in: Musculoskeletal Radiology
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When it comes to choosing rams that will sire the most profitable flocks, sheep farmers in the United Kingdom have found something better than their own eyes and experience: CT scans.

The scans show which rams (and ewes) have the greatest lean muscle mass. Those animals are most prized for breeding.

Scottish farmers have been using CT scans for a decade. Most take their animals to the Scottish Agricultural College in Edinburgh for scanning.

Kirsty Moore, PhD, a geneticist at the college, compared flocks sired by scanned and unscanned rams. According to Farmers Guardian, a weekly newspaper aimed at Great Britain’s farmers, she found a clear difference—up to 20 percent more muscularity—in flocks that choose their breeding rams by scanning every year.

Dr. Moore calculated that when farmers consistently scan, their flocks average 0.37 kilograms greater lean weight per animal. Over a flock of 720 lambs, that would produce 266 kilograms more meat a year, worth an extra £1,066 ($1,746) in sales. (I grew up on a farm, but we didn’t have sheep, so I have no idea why she chose a 720-lamb flock as a baseline. But, hey, she’s the expert.)

Scans cost about £85 per animal.

Initially, the Scottish Agricultural College was the only place farmers could bring their sheep for scanning. According to the online version of the Daily Mail, that college has now lent a scanner to the University of Nottingham, which installed it in the village of Sutton Bonington.

Each sheep is mildly sedated by a veterinarian, then strapped into a half-cylindrical bed with a cushion behind its head. You can see photos (which actually are kind of sweet) here and here. It takes about three minutes to scan a sheep.

Kevin Sinclair, PhD, an associate professor in developmental biology, leads the Nottingham scanning program. He told the Daily Mail:

One argument for lamb becoming less popular as a meat is because people complain about it being too fatty. Breeders are increasingly testing their animals for leanness, and this does it with pinpoint accuracy.

You’ll notice, by the way, that to this point I have heroically refrained from making any annoying sheep puns. Aren’t ewe glad?

Related seminar: Computed Body Tomography: The Cutting Edge

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