November 21, 2008

Lands & Survey: 1. Sheep and cattle breeding in New Zealand

History of NZ Lands & Survey Department Angus & Romney breeding schemes - Part 1

By Dr Clive Dalton & Dr Doug Lang

A germ of an idea
In August 1967, Dr Doug Lang and the late Graeme Hight were driving back from the Massey Sheepfarmers' Conference along the Western Bays road bordering Lake Taupo, discussing a research project that they had started at the MAF Whatawhata Hill Country Research Station where Doug (and his dog Ted) had recently been appointed as Superintendent. The project needed ewes that had produced twins.

Doug was having trouble obtaining these sheep to research giving fertility a big boost, as the lambing percentage at the station was typical of the Raglan Hill country at that time - 60% Lambs weaned/100 ewes joined with the ram if you were honest, and up to 110% if you were in the pub!

It was when they saw the sheep on the Lands and Survey (L&S) blocks along the Taupo Western Bays road that they realised these flocks could be a great source of twinning ewes. There were not a lot of twins to be seen in the paddocks, but the flocks were massive, and if they went through and “screened” enough sheep, they would surely get the twinners they needed. There were about 280,000 ewes on the L&S blocks at the time in the Rotorua area which included Taupo.

Graeme Hight's interest in screening twinning ewes had already been excited, as he and his father (as private farmers) were members of the newly-formed NZ Romney Development Group. This group was pioneering a new form of breeding called "group breeding", where high performance ewes were identified on different individual farms and then run together in one location in a nucleus flock for intense recording and selection for productive traits.

The best nucleus ewes were then used to breed rams to return to contributors. This became a continuous operation of “screening and selection” for high performance. It was a world first and involved Professor Al Rae at Massey University (a world expert in sheep genetics), and a group of Romney breeders goaded on by Tony Parker in Hawke’s Bay.

By the end of the journey, Doug and Graeme’s aspirations had one of the biggest breeding schemes in the world under way, breeding rams first to meet all L&S's needs and then to mate the entire national flock! Why not was their question?

But back to earth. They realised that the first problem was to find out who to approach to float their idea, and then prepare a case for consideration. Clearly, the first place to go was right into the lion’s den - the offices of the L&S Department in Rotorua. Good public servants would have gone first to the Director of their own department, but Doug was an old campaigner and he knew that it was best to delay this for later if the show was a goer.

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