November 21, 2008

Lands & Survey: 5. Sheep & cattle breeding in New Zealand

History of NZ Lands & Survey Department Angus & Romney breeding schemes - Part 5

By Dr Clive Dalton; Dr Doug Lang

Political genetics
Like all L&S regions, the Rotorua superintendency had a well established ram and bull buying policy, and a specialist staff member had devoted his whole career to this business. He was known around the country and was courted by stud breeders and stock agents alike and had a well-oiled purchasing round visiting studs on a regular annual programme. These staff members were very important people in the farming business, as they in fact had the cheque book for a big government department which was guaranteed money if you got the business. It was well worth the stud breeder having a new bottle of whisky opened and the top thrown away for their arrival.

So there were some considerable concerns (to put it mildly) on the part of the Rotorua district’s ram and bull buyer about having to cancel orders and, worse still, tell the breeders why the Department didn't want any rams that year. Things that had remained the same for donkey's years were starting to change.

Stud breeders and agents were certainly not happy, and we saw the development of a new branch of genetics which I called "political genetics". The theory was that Government Departments did not have the right to breed their own sires, as it was unfair to people who were in business to supply them.

Change had arrived and the last rams from outside stud flocks were purchased in 1968 and 1969. There was feeling of "the gathering storm" and we scientists were worried. However, Eric Gibson, with support from Jack Fitzharris in L&S Head Office was prepared to go ahead and face any flak from the stud breeders. Again we got the clear impression that he was actually looking forward to it.

Duncan McIntyre, by this time, had become a real enthusiast of the scheme, both under Eric's influence and his own perception of what it could do for his Department of Lands, as the early results were impressive.

Expansion of sheep scheme
The scheme progressed at a pace with more screening of two tooths from more blocks, and the development of a sound ram selection policy. By this time the "Waihora Sheep Improvement Programme" was reported at the Massey Sheepfarmers' Conference in 1975. It involved 7698 ewes, 3000 ram hoggets and 3900 ewe hoggets in the scheme. By 1968 the nucleus flock was run on Waihora (manager Peter Guy), Otutira (manager Bob Black) and Kakaho (manager John Stringfellow).

Data handling
Very soon it became clear that the information coming through from the sheep scheme was far beyond anything that a research station had ever faced before, and if it hadn't been for Graeme Hight's "workaholic" nature, it could so easily have been ditched and put in the too-hard basket.

First, there was the actual fieldwork of weighing thousands of animals and weighing and classing fleeces. When the job looked impossible, everyone involved seemed to see it as a challenge - especially the farm managers and their staff, which included their wives.

There was always a spirit of competition to see if a system could be bettered or the speed of handling increased, so a whole collection of new developments arose from this work. Examples were: lambing bags, recording aprons, raised races and narrow pens to inspect sheep and so on. Necessity was certainly mothering invention.

The Biometrics Section at Ruakura played a vital role in developing systems to handle and analyse the data. The two key people in this were Ken Jury and Don Wilson who fortunately could understand the practical problems involved. They entered the spirit of the scheme, goaded on by Graeme Hight.

Graeme was the key to the sheep scheme and worked long into the night, "rolling his own" and copying out endless lists in his neat script on reams of MAF data paper. Eric Gibson remembered that at one time there was something like 7,000 stock units being recorded and an index worked out for them using manual corrections for all their traits. This was all done by Graeme in the few days after weighing.

Eric remembered that once, when computers were first used, the results didn't arrive for six months! Eric pointed out that all this recording work was done by Graeme in addition to all his other research on the station. The Waihora sheep data were Graeme’s pride and joy and he was very protective of it.

There were also some very dedicated technicians at Whatawhata who supported Graeme with the Waihora sheep work, but before the lambing books reached Whatawhata, there were many hours of hard work done by the farm managers and their wives. Without their contribution the whole show would have ground to a rapid halt.

The Apple computer revolution
By the time Geoff Nicoll took over the Cattle Breeding Scheme from me, PCs had arrived and Geoff was brave enough to take one out into the fresh air of the sheep and cattle yards.

Dr Geoff Nicoll showing ram data to buyers at a Waihora ram sale.
The machines are Apple IIe models

Selling rams

The first rams to be sold from the Waihora flock went to surrounding blocks. Some managers were very happy with this, as they were believers in the scheme and had screened their top two-tooths into the Waihora nucleus, so they expected to get some good rams in return.

Others were not as enthusiastic, and their main criticism was always over the size of the rams. A good ram in their view had to be a massive beast, and no amount of fancy records could compensate for this. These managers been reared on this principle, and when their rams arrived each year, mainly from Feilding where they had been purchased by the L &S stud stock manager, they were massive. 'Too blardy small, too blardy small' was their mantra.

Block ram sale day
Here the rams were balloted to go to blocks so there was a fair sharing of the genetics. The picture below shows Dorothy Hight picking the numbers from the barrel and the paper work being done before the ram was purchased for the block.

Public ram sale
This is when the fun really started, as some Council members of the Romney Association came to buy rams, make a fuss and declare to all who wanted to listen that they were taking them home to feed to their dogs.

Other serious buyers were given plenty of opportunity to check the records of each ram and there was great discussion on all aspects of the scheme. (See the pictures below).

The Lands & Survey staff, led by Eric Gibson were having a ball.

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