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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.