July 31, 2008

Sheep will be back!

Science made and saved the New Zealand sheep industry in the past, and it can save it again. I'll predict that within the next decade or less, there'll be massive realisation (but no public admission of course) that the environmental problems caused by the lemming rush into large-scale dairying were totally predictable, and the humble sheep is the only animal to rescue the situation.

Sheep are the core of dryland farming, and there's going to be more of this with climate change. Pouring precious ground water on to these areas is a not sustainable. Water sucked from the ground will become far too expensive and too much of an environmental and political hot potato to grow pasture, and in many places it will simply run out.

The massive irrigators soaking the dry Canterbury plains and now heading for the North Island, sucking up ground water that is hundreds of years old is neither reliable nor sustainable. A cow drinks 70L of water a day and you need another 70L for plant cleaning etc, plus goodness knows how much to produce the Dry Matter for a year's feed. The ground sources will pack up, and many will be polluted.

Anyone who believes that the world market for dairy produce will stay high is dreaming. Grain prices are currently going crazy thanks to biofuels and milk is especially vulnerable as unlike oil, minerals and water there are plenty of plant substitutes.

Consumer distaste over antibiotics used in dairying will gain massive momentum in the next few years, so imagine the costs of operating a dairy enterprise without them. Vets will go out of business, as selling antibiotics and their application are a major part of their income.
So New Zealand hill country currently grazing dairy heifers or milking skinny cows will have to look again at sheep; but the business will be very different bringing some exciting challenges for science and farmers, if we can only get the truckloads of blocking bureaucrats.

Dairying expansion in the last five years was not just because of the milksolids price. It was because there have been no practical innovations in the sheep industry for 50 years due to neglect of research.

The electric fence and top dressing were the last two big innovations in the 1950s that actually made more profit. Since then, there have been plenty of things that appeared as "new" and may have increased production, but they also increased costs so real profit was marginal. The major sin was that long-term implications were not taken into account.

The best example is anthelmintics in sheep and cattle worm drench. These wonder drugs of the 1960s certainly killed worms so stock thrived. It was a winning formula. Pharmaceutical companies made money, distributors made money along with the vets whose advice was to use plenty of drench to kill as many worms as possible. Now, we have massive drench resistance to deal with – and it only took 30 years. Science warned of this but was ignored, as everyone was happy.

We'll need a new sheep revolution to rescue farmers from the shambles left by neglected research and marketing. What happens on a sheep farm today hasn't changed much in 75 years, as seen in harvesting and handling of meat and wool and getting them to the market. There's too much handling and too many folk clipping the ticket as products pass by. The sheep industry is on its knees at present, and it's sad that it will have to sink even lower before real action happens.

So what has science got to come up with to save the sheep industry? Every sheep farmer knows what's wrong. The profits in their business have gone. Most have lost money over the last three years. There are plenty of clever folk with fancy tools to fix things so why no action?

It's all about motivation and removing blockages so that rapid change can happen. Sheep farmers are weary of reading about solutions and what the different organisations can do to fix things. None of them agree and they all rubbish each other's ideas. It's a time for a massive head banging by the Minister of Agriculture – but sadly that won't happen. Here's some suggestions for him.

Aging farmers

The "average" sheep farmer is male and well over 50 years old and has worked hard all his life. It would have been better if he'd worked a lot smarter than harder, but who was there to help him? His family have all be well educated at boarding schools and are now lawyers and accountants and won't be home to work any more. Who could blame them?

ACC shows bad backs have always been common and hips and knees are now a major threat to health. The last thing farmers want is to have to catch 80kg sheep, turn them over, and bend down to use a handpiece or foot clippers. So science has to come up with a sheep that needs no handling or treatment, and is never seen by a veterinarian, as their charges must go up if they are to survive. The future sheep will be much lighter too. Big sheep are not efficient sheep.

Genetics is the answer, and has been for the last 50 years but nobody was interested. It was too easy to stick things in to and on to a sheep, and everyone pushing these products made sure farmers were brainwashed by advertising. The first drench promotions came with barbeque tongs and have now progressed to tropical cruises and iPods.

Genetic solutions

Genetic improvements are very cost effective and gains are permanent. Breeding solved the Facial Eczema problem 40 years ago as well as producing easy-care sheep that don't need foot treatment, using methods developed in the 1700s with none of today's biotechnology.

We could solve the internal parasite problem by genetics and produce low-chemical sheep in less than 5 years, and this would cut out all the bending the farmer has to do. What's holding this back are those brought up to believe that you cannot farm sheep without drench. Many innovative farmers have now shown you can!


Two thirds of New Zealand is hill country and becoming drier, so farming has got to be low cost with a vengeance. This means a system more akin to ranching which has always had the smell of "lazy farming" about it, and the very antitheses of a Kiwi "hard yakka" pioneering culture.

The key to this is minimal handling of stock and certainly not bending over to do jobs. Science has already developed automated electronic gates and provided knowledge of sheep behaviour which could be exploited. This is now old technology.

Docking lambs could be avoided with dags and blowfly solved by genetics. Faster growth and better marketing could avoid the need for castration so we produce a "humane low chemical" product for increasingly concerned consumers.

Woolless sheep are not the future, but getting rid of all the chores associated with growing and removing wool is. Using a human to take wool off with a handpiece is ancient. A lot of science and technology has already been done on chemical shearing and robotics, and this needs more time and investment. Solutions will come when the need increases.

R&D into new products from wool has struggled to survive under past research neglect and political attitudes, but with new support this could blossom. The synthetic fibre folk will always be ahead due to massive investment in research, but just wait till the impact of peak oil and falling supply really bite products based on oil. So don't be rude about wool, even if you can't afford to buy it in New Zealand. Our Free Trade Agreement (FTA) with China has some fantastic prospects for the sheep meat and wool.

The future is not in the Doha round for Free Trade Talks which have failed again. It's in individual deals with local blocks of countries.

Sheep are survivors when the climate gets tough, simply because they can exploit body fat reserves, and we have not been stupid enough to breed sheep that are fat free. Indeed in future, fat could be a very valuable source of biofuel and as valuable as the meat.
The future for sheep meat is for consumers to be unaware that it was once a live animal, and even a carcass. It will be seen simply a source of protein that can be used for a wide range of end uses in the food industry. Transporting water around the world is far too expensive now and will be more wasteful in future.

Health products
Sheep are full of potential pharmaceuticals and neutraceutical products, and science, given the resources, has the ability to really kick this research along. It was science that developed lanolin in the steam age and it's still being used.

The Net
Broadband will arrive eventually in rural New Zealand and this will change the whole business of sheep farming. Internet marketing will get rid of the enormous cost of the stock and station industry and the prehistoric idea of selling stock at saleyards for a start.

Look around & think
When you drive around the New Zealand hills viewing the new dairy sheds, wide tanker tracks gouged into the hillsides, the thin pastures waiting the next dollop of Nitrogen fertiliser, the long lines of skinny limping cows on their 2+km walk home for milking, - just stop and question the long-term sense of it all.

Look at the massive stacks of purchased maize silage, and silos of Palm Kernel from Indonesia where its production is decimating native forest. What sense does this make?

The old woolsheds and sheep yards are gone but new smart-technology facilities will be back, and so will be a sustainable future for hill country farmers, provided the 2008 bureaucratic blockers get culled at the next muster.

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