February 28, 2014

Sheep Performance Recording in New Zealand. History - The first Selection Index

By Dr Clive Dalton

What’s a Selection Index?
A Selection Index is used where you have a lot of different traits to consider, when deciding which are the best individuals in a group to use as parents for the next generation.

Using a Selection Index to identify top sheep was the start of a breeding revolution, not just in New Zealand but in sheep flocks worldwide.  Prior to the development of an Index, breeders were more likely to use ‘Independent Culling Levels’ when a sheep had to be good in a whole range of traits to be selected for breeding.  If a defect showed up in a single trait, then it was culled!

It was like sitting for an overall Certificate which was made up of different subjects - and you had to pass them all.  If you failed one test, then you failed the Certificate.  In the old School Certificate – no matter how good you were at Geography and History, if you failed English and Maths you failed the lot.  It was tough, as brilliance in one subject didn’t compensate for poor performance in another.

An Index allows balancing or compensation between the various component traits that go to make up the Index, so you end up with a ‘balanced’ overall measure of performance.

Tony Parker’s Romney flock
Tony Parker’s Wairunga Romney flock in Havelock North was thought to be the first flock in New Zealand to have a Selection Index calculated for it incorporating fertility (Number of lambs born NLB), growth (weaning weight WW) and fleece weight (FW). This was due to the work which Professor Al Rae from Massey and his students Graeme Hight and Neil Clarke did after Al’s return from Ph.D. studies in America. 

Massey Cheviot flock

Cheviot ewes in their native territory in the Cheviot hills on the Scottish Borders at Chatto farm.  Photo by kind permission of Helen Brown who is shepherding this flock. She loves the breed because of their 'great spirit'. They were brought to New Zealand for their hardiness.

 Dr George Wickham, formerly Seniour Lecturer in Massey University’s Sheep Husbandry Department told me about some of his interesting memories.  Here they are:

‘I doubt that the selection index for Tony Parker’s flock was the first one used in New Zealand.  One very likely candidate was selection in the Cheviot flock at Massey (Massey College in those days).  Al Rae split the flock into two sub flocks:

(1)  A traditionally selected sub flock selected on visual appraisal.
(2)  A sub flock selected on number of lambs tagged at birth and weaning weight.  

George Wickham wasn't sure if Al had a calculating machine in those days to combine the two traits, but without doubt the flock rams in the performance flock were selected on the basis of the number and weight of the lambs weaned by their dams, and there would have been some calculations done for this.  

Prof Al Rae

 I was involved in collecting some of the data from the ‘stroppy little bastards’ when working as a junior research officer in the late 1950s, but I can’t remember the precise details of how they were selected or an Index calculated.  I know that number of lambs born (NLB) and weaning weight (WW) were the main traits in this Index. 

Prof Rae had an enormous influence on sheep breeding in New Zealand, and many of us were always disappointed that he was never knighted for his work. Many of the world's top geneticists trained under his enthusiastic guidance.

Some years later I did a comparison of the performance of the two sub flocks, and was surprised to find that there was no difference between them.  After some further detective work, the farm staff told me that Bob Hewitt, the then sheep farm supervisor, had culled most of the rams that had been originally chosen for the performance-selected flock, saying their conformation wasn't good enough. He had replaced them with rams he thought ‘looked better’.  Bob was a dyed-in-the-wool traditional breeder from a Romney stud background. 

 Pat McMahon
 It’s also possible that Pat McMahon did some calculations for an index.  Pat worked closely with a group of Romney stud breeders in the Karere area near Longburn.  The Voss, Neilsen (of Romney N gene fame), Tanner, Mitchell and Buchanan flocks were all in this area. The Vosses kept very detailed performance records. 

Pat used the Voss flock records to calculate heritabilities of a number of traits and presented papers on sheep breeding at the Massey sheep farmers’ conference. Pat had earlier worked closely with Dry on the genetics and the wool of the N-type Romneys (later called Drysdales). In the 1950s he moved to Australia where he became the head of the School of Wool Technology at the University of New South Wales.

New Zealand agricultural history – sheep breeding on the Chatham Islands

Dr Clive Dalton

Looking north across the harbour and bay
The Chatham Islands are 800 km east of Christchurch and cover a total of 966 square km, almost all of which is in the two main islands.  There are 10 islands in the archipelago. Farming has always been important but it has always been a challenge due to the rugged climate, lack of infrastructure, and massive extra costs of getting stock to and from the islands.

In 1968 the Director of the Advisory Division of the New Zealand Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries, Russell Scott, asked Sheep and Beef Officer, Lindsay Galloway to travel to the islands to assess the following options:

 Production standards – lambing percentage, wool weight and style, and lamb slaughter weights.
·      Wool preparation and handling standards and shearing standards.
·      Stocking rates.
·      Stocking rates
·      Animal health and sheep and cattle condition.
·      General farm practices relating to livestock.
·      Farm building standards

Production levels
The old woolshed on the south coast looking west

This is what Lindsay found: 

Stocking rates far too high for the country and farming methods.
·      Animal health was very poor with bad lice infestation and poor drenching policies.
·      Large numbers of wethers farmed only for wool.
·      Not enough ewes to maintain a viable flock and allow for any culling.
·      Lambing percentage – 65% lambs docked with 20% lamb deaths in normal seasons.
·      Lamb killing weights – very few lambs made killing weight by weaning (17.5kg).
·      Sheep body well below standard to achieve good profits.
·      Fleece weights – 3.5-4kg.
·      Shearing, wool preparation and classing of low standard.
·      Farm buildings in poor state of repair.
·      Ram imports – NZ stud breeders provided poor quality sires at high prices. Half the rams died before 5 years of age due to climate and lack of care.
·      Cattle in very poor condition and local bulls used a great deal.

MAF's Galloway goals
 These are the initial goals set by Lindsay – and they were achieved.
·      Increase lambing percentage to 120% on better farms and 110% for others.
·      Achieve 80-90% calving rate.
·      Increase lamb killing weights by at least 5kg
·      Achieve fleece weight of 5kg/head on better farms.
·      Achieve NZ farm standards for animal health.
·      Raise wool preparation standards to market requirements.

How was this done?
1. A sheep Group Breeding Scheme was formed.  An elite flock of 800 top young Romney ewes was selected from the flocks of four top Chatham stud sheep farmers supported by Island Federated Farmers. Ewes were recorded on Sheeplan with data entered vetted by Lindsay before processing.  The scheme worked successfully for 20 years with Lindsay’s involvement in October and February each year, to select replacement ewes and attend the Island ram fairs.

 Lindsay also started to run courses for both ram breeders about the basic principles of marketing - and they were very successful. It was strong on defining clients' needs, arranging appointment, preparing a ram sales budget, explanation of Sheeplan records, closing the sale - and much more.  The picture shows the cover of the manual Lindsay produced. There was a charge for the course.

2. The 70 Chatham and Pitt Island farmers were encouraged to move from farming wethers to running ewes to increase lamb returns and provide more scope to select better 2th ewe replacements, and use terminal sire breeds on the poorer ewes allowing more prime lambs for sale.  This work proceeded under Lindsay’s guidance for the next 25 years.

3. As disposal of stock on the Island was the major problem in the 1970/80s, it was essential that the local meat works stay open against political intentions to close it.  Lindsay lobbied hard and the works stayed open until an alternative was found in the form of better shipping to the mainland.

4. Negotiated with the NZ Wool Board to make a shearing instructor available to him who for10 years ran shearing and wool handling courses with some owners of bigger properties gaining their own wool classer certificates. On Lindsay’s first visit he took Godfrey Bowen and they set up the Chatham Island Shearing and Wool Handling Championships, which continues.

5. Sheep breeds.  After the Island Romney sheep population had been set on the improvement road, Coopworths were introduced to improve fertility, and then Texel and Suffolk was used to lift carcass weight.  There were major improvements in wool quality by removal of face cover (which improved mobility) and hairy britch.
Rams bred by Doug Linauzes being mustered for inspection by Lindsay before sale.

  6. Cattle breeds.  Improve the quality of bulls used on the Island by selecting bulls from mainland herds with high performance records. Angus and Hereford were the breeds best suited to the environment.

7. Animal health.  Over the 1960-70s, representatives from the pharmaceutical company M.S.D. introduced programmes to control lice and worms in sheep which were the main problems.

8. Farm infrastructure. Lindsay arranged for experts in fencing, water reticulation and design of sheep and cattle yards to visit the Island.  Lindsay himself was a recognised authority in design of woolsheds and sheep yards. MAF eventually appointed Sam Henry as a full-time Farm Advisory Officer on the Chathams.

9. Bees and horticulture. Through MAF, Lindsay arranged for many visits to the Island by apiarists to set up bee colonies around the Islands.  Similar arrangements were made for horticulture specialists to visit to develop production of vegetables and trees.

10. Farm business management.  It was important that the changes to farming systems on the Chathams resulted in solid economic returns and Lindsay arranged for regular seminars by MAF economists and tax specialists.

11.  Farm training.  Lindsay saw that education was vital for the agricultural future of the Islands and encouraged and arranged for interested farmers’ sons and daughters to attend courses at Telford Agriculture Centre and MAF’s Flock House Farm Training Centre at Bulls. Some went on to graduate from Lincoln College.

Royal Honour
For his services to agriculture and especially to the Chatham Islands from 1968-2010, Lindsay Galloway was made a Member of the New Zealand Order of Merit (MNZM). Lindsay continued providing technical support to Chatham farmers at no charge for ten years after his official retirement from MAF.

February 5, 2014

Sheep Performance Recording in New Zealand. History - First developments

  By Dr Clive Dalton

In New Zealand, sheep performance recording was started with the single objective of advancing genetic improvement in the national flock. This contrasted with performance recording in Britain, run by the Meat and Livestock Commission to improve flock management.

The National Flock Recording Scheme (NFRS)
The NFRS was designed and implemented to bring about genetic improvement in all stud flocks in New Zealand, so that genetic gain could be passed on to commercial sheep farmers through rams purchased from stud breeders.  The NFRS evolution involved a number of stages, and probably more hours spent in committee rooms than in sheep yards and woolsheds.  Here are some key stages:

1.     In the 1950s, Professor Al Rae of Massey College (later Massey University) came back from his Ph.D. studies at Iowa State University in the USA under J.L Lush and L. N. Hazel, with a concept for a genetic improvement programme for the New Zealand Romney.  He presented it to the NZ Romney Breed Society council but the reception could be described as cool at best.
2.     About the same time, Rae and Massey Senior Lecturer Bob Barton visited sheep breeders and Young Farmer’s Clubs to talk about their ideas on performance recording – and to get some response to the idea.  
3.     Romney breeder Tony Parker of Wairunga in Havelock North remembers their visit and was one of the first to put their concept into practice, and with Rae and Barton’s help, (and their students Graeme Hight and Neil Clarke), they produced a pilot scheme on hand-cranked calculators.  
4.     Parker was clearly a pioneer of sheep recording in New Zealand, and he records his most memorable day when the first Selection Index for a sheep in New Zealand was produced as Saturday 16 December 1961.  His Wairunga Romney Stud had made history.
5.     In 1965, Parker visited the USA and UK to meet key academics and people in the business of sheep breeding, explaining what he was doing and getting their support.  Back home he was having problems with the Romney Association promoting the concept of recording data on the farm, and then ending up with computer outputs to indicate genetic merit, as there was a great fear of what damage these ‘computer sheep’ could do to the breed. Parker had to reassure himself about this, and it took a bit of time until the results confirmed that it was the only way to go.
6.     On December 15 1965, the Minister of Agriculture the Rt. Hon. Brian Talboys visited Parker to see what was involved in performance recording ‘in the field’.  Tony Parker records that Talboys was accompanied by Dick Harrison (MP for Hawke’s Bay), Doug Carter (MP for Raglan) and local MAF advisors Frank Collin and John Nott. Al Rae and Bob Barton from Massey were also there.
7.     On February 15 1966 Talboys called a meeting in his office to discuss a proposal for performance recording for sheep and beef cattle.
8.     Those present were Dr Alan Johns (MAF Assistant Director General), Dr L.R. Wallace (MAF Research Director), and Ted Clarke (MAF Superintendant Whatawhata Hill Country Research Station).  Clark was asked to set out full details of what would be involved in a sheep performance-recording scheme, including a suggested structure for an organising body.
9.     Funds were to be made available to start the scheme from the Department of Agriculture (later the Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries MAF), the NZ Meat Producers’ Board and the NZ Wool Board. 
10. The Sheep and Wool Division of the Department of Agriculture (DOA) would operate the scheme, with their field staff made responsible for on-farm operations.  The DOA would be responsible for the computer programming needed, and the handling of the data coming in from breeders and then after processing, sending back breeders’ processed data in time to make selection decisions.
11. The Romney Sheep Breeders’ Association had formed a small research group of veterinarian Dr David Quinliven and Cliff Martin called ‘The NZ Romney Survey’ which collected and analysed data from breeders’ flocks. The Survey supported the NFRS proposal and offered to undertake fieldwork in selected flocks in their survey.
12. On 26 November 1965, Tony Parker recorded that the day after Graeme Hight had completed the Wairunga first Ram Selection Index, a small group of Romney breeders (some who were at Wairunga to collect rams) discussed plans to pool resources and form a Romney Breeding Group.  They were Bill and Graham Bendell, Bill Cullen, Bernie Hayden and Holmes Warren.  This was another historic date in NZ sheep breeding.

Photo from Tony Parker's family history. Meeting at Wairunga to celebrate the first sheep Index. 

The NFRS was controlled by an Advisory Committee set up to represent all parties interested in the scheme. As it was set up before the needs of all the users were fully represented, the committee operated from 1967 to 1974 with the following membership:
·      NZ Meat Board – C.F. Jones.
·      NZ Wool Board – B.S. Trolove.
·      Federated Farmers – F.H. Spackman.
·      Romney Sheep Breeders’ Association. – J.H. Rutherford.
·      United Breed Societies Association – D.L. Ensor; W.J. McLeod.NZ.
·      NZ Meat and Wool Boards’ Sheep and Beef Cattle Survey – I.M. Cairney.
·      Department of Agriculture.  NFRS Director – E.A Clark, and Assistant Director General - Dr A.T. Johns.

·      Chairman – J. H. Rutherford.
·      DOA Flock Recording Officer – I. McDonald
·      DOA Overseer of data bureau – A. South

It was anticipated that an ‘Interim Scheme’ would operate for three to four years as a free service to breeders wishing to participate, and then when any problems were ironed out, it would be handed over to a ‘National Recording Council’.

More committees:
·      In 1972 the Dryden report recommended extension and enlargement of the NFRS and drew attention to some specific problem. Dryden apparently was a member of the NZ Meat Board.

·      The Livestock Improvement Technical Advisory Committee (LITAC) was then appointed by the Minister of Agriculture (Mr Doug Carter) to examine technical problems of dairy, beef and sheep improvement for the eventual formation of a Livestock Improvement Organisation (LIO).

·      The then Director General of Agriculture (Dr Alan T. Johns) specifically asked LITAC to examine revision of the NFRS, to meet the demands of users which had built up over the early period of operation, and to consider revision which would allow transfer of the NFRS to the Livestock Improvement Organisation.

·      At one of these meetings I remember Ruakura geneticist Dr Alan Carter suggesting the name ‘Sheeplan’ for the revamped NFRS, as we already had ‘Beefplan’, which was the national performance recording scheme for beef cattle, and which had been operating successfully for a number of years.  Beefplan was very basic in what it provided as powerful computers were yet to be developed.

·      In 1972, the Minister of Agriculture formed the Interim Sheep Committee (ISC) chaired by John Daniell to replace the NFRS Advisory Committee and to fully represent users. The ISC had to liaise with LITAC, consider fees and organise the election of a replacement body.

NFRS Growth
In 1967, in the first year of NFRS, there were 348 flocks of all breeds covering 77,000 ewes. By 1973, these had grown to 630 flocks, and 170,000 ewes, in no small measure due to the development of the Coopworth sheep, driven by Professor Ian Coop and Vern Clarke at Lincoln College (later University).  The new Coopworth Breed Society was unique as it was mandatory for all flocks to be performance recorded.

By 1985 when the NFRS had become Sheeplan, there were 30 different breeds, 1303 flocks and 307,000 ewes recorded.  This really has been a success story.