Genetic determinism for within-litter birth weight variation and its relationship with litter weight and litter size in the Ripollesa ewe breed

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Birth weight plays a central role in lamb survival and growth, and the knowledge of its genetic determinism has become essential in worldwide selection programmes. Within this context, within-litter birth weight variation (BWV) has been suggested as an attractive trait to homogenise litters in prolific species, although it has not been analysed in sheep. The objective of this study was to ascertain whether maternal additive genetic variance exists for BWV in Ripollesa ewes, and to study its genetic, permanent environmental and residual relationships with litter weight (LW) and litter size (LS) at birth. Data were recorded in the Ripollesa experimental flock of the Universitat Autònoma of Barcelona, between 1986 and 2005, and included 1 662 litters from 380 ewes, with 712 records of BWV and 1 530 records of LW. Traits were analysed with a multivariate animal model solved through Bayesian methodologies, and with a threshold characterisation of LS. Additionally, the effect of BWV on lamb survival was studied. Additive genetic variance was observed for BWV (h 2 = 0.061), as well as for LW (h2 = 0.200) and LS (h 2 = 0.141). Nevertheless, genetic correlations among those traits were not substantial (BWV and LW = 0.151; BWV and LS = -0.219; LW and LS = -0.320) and suffered from a high degree of uncertainly, with the null correlation included within the highest posterior interval at 95%. Within-litter birth weight variation and LS showed a negative and large permanent environmental correlation ( -0.872), and LW and LS were negatively correlated due to residual ( -0.762) and permanent environmental ( -0.449) random sources of variation. Within-litter birth weight variation influenced lamb mortality during the first 7 days of life (P < 0.05), increasing and decreasing survivability in heavier and lighter littermates, respectively. Nevertheless, stillbirths and lambs died after the 1st week of life were not affected by BWV (P>0.05). The low heritability found indicates that slow genetic progress may be expected from selecting for BWV. Close to zero genetic correlations suggest that this selection will probably not affect LS and LW, although some significant permanent and residual correlations must be taken into account. Further studies are needed to understand better the genetic architecture among these three reproductive traits. © 2007 The Animal Consortium.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)637-644
Publication statusPublished - 1 Jul 2007


  • Birth weight
  • Genetic variation
  • Litter size
  • Litter weight
  • Ripollesa sheep


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