November 21, 2008

Lands & Survey: 4. Sheep & cattle breeding in New Zealand

History of NZ Lands & Survey Department Angus & Romney breeding schemes - Part 4

By Dr Clive Dalton & Dr Doug Lang

Enthusiasm fired
The theory backed by the practice (and vice versa), clearly fired the imagination of three important people - Barry Dawson, the L&S field officer for the blocks around Waihora, and the manager of the Waihora block, Peter Guy, and his wife Rose. They were key people and were keen to push ahead with the scheme – willingly accepting the extra work it would land them with for no extra pay. They treated the show as if it was their own.

Apart from the daily routine, these people did so much of the public relations on the ground to get the concept accepted among shepherds and managers on surrounding blocks. These folk may in theory have been “farm employees”, but they were critical as they had to work with the stock, and if you dislike what you see every day, then your dedication to the job disappears pretty quickly. The enthusiasm of the farm staff involved was what fired the office bureaucrats. They could not ignore something that the managers were so enthusiastic about – and made more money for the Department.

Th news of this project spread and fired the enthusiasm of many overseas visitors who were agog at the concept. One such person was Dr Claire Terrill from the USA who was a great mate of Al Rae’s, and had a similar international reputation as a sheep geneticist. He became a tremendous supporter of the project which we at Whatawhata always made sure to stress it was a L&S project and not a MAF one. This kept reinforcing the “buy-in” by everyone in the L&S department.

Castrate or not?
The decision to retain all the female lambs from the twinning two-tooths was easy to make, as they obviously had enormous potential as female replacements. But whether to keep the rams entire was a momentous decision and none of us involved in the project could foresee the troubles ahead. Anyway, somewhere along the line, without the decisions going to too high an authority, the decision to castrate met its doom, and a new genetic reservoir was created. There was always the possibility that the decision could be changed up to the time it was too hard to get a ring around the rams’ testicles.

The new boss at Rotorua
In 1968 (the year Clive joined the Whatawhata staff) the newly appointed L&S Superintendent, Eric Gibson, had arrived at Rotorua and everyone involved waited with bated breath to see if the whole idea would meet its death by being declared as "bullshit". We had been told that when “Mr Gibson spoke, he didn’t mince his words and was no fool”. He had been given the nickname “Hoot Gibson” at Lincoln College. We had to set up a meeting to face this new challenge.

We scientists from Whatawhata, approached Rotorua with trepidation. We soon discovered that whoever had made that assessment of the new boss should have been given top marks for perception. But much to the surprise and relief of us Whatawhata boffins, Eric immediately understood the principle of group breeding and in particular saw the implications of where it could lead the Rotorua L&S district. He could see far beyond the scientists' political naivety - and realised the implications of a government department breeding its own rams. We saw a smile on the face of the tiger!

Mind you, we sensed another twist in Eric’s motivation as he was a very competitive trooper, and there was great competition between the different districts in L&S. As the new man at Rotorua, he clearly wanted to show the L&S “Head Office lot” that they were the best. To have a contempt for HO was a basic requirement of any public servant – and we all prided ourselves in developing the art.

We'd better tell Wal
The scheme, by this time had raced ahead in terms of the number of two-tooths being screened, so the nucleus flock was rapidly expanding. With the excellent working relationships between everyone involved, things that were ideas at one meeting were put into practice the next day. The Public Service had never seen anything like this enthusiasm turned into action. Sir Humphrey in the BBC “Yes Minister” would have committed suicide!

The charge was led by Eric Gibson who had the simple approach of "if it makes sense – then get on with it". There was no bureaucracy to feed and slow things up before approvals were obtained, because the decisions were made by the whole group and approved by Eric on the spot with no decision waiting time.

These good relationships soon advanced the programme to the point of no return. There was no turning back, so Doug Lang realised we had better declare its hand with its MAF masters. No official project proposal had been written for the Waihora project which was now invovling more of our (MAF) time and resources in travel, data handling and Ruakura computer time. We started to get a bit jittery about the Director of Agricultural Research, (Dr Lyn Wallace) finding out from other sources what we were up to. So Doug decided it was time to tell "Wal".

About 1971, the then Minister of Lands, Duncan McIntyre, visited Whatawhata accompanied by Dr Wallace on a bit of a PR visit when he was up in the Waikato, mainly to see what was going on at Ruakura. Such VIPs were regularly brought out to Whatawhata for an hour or two, and as Duncan was also a Hawke’s Bay hill country farmer a look-see at what we were doing was a obvious time filler for him. We always took visitors up the twisty track to the woolshed and airstrip from where they could get a decent view of the steep back blocks of the farm’s 2000 acres.

I remember we were heading down a steep slope in the Landrover when Doug started telling Duncan about how well one of the most exciting projects we at Whatawhata were involved with was going - in his own Department. Wal was all ears!

But there was no explosion and after further detailed discussion and questioning, to the credit of these two eminent men, the verbal go-ahead was given. We didn’t need written permission in those days as these mens’ words were their bonds. They warned, however, that if the project caused any hassles between the two Departments (MAF and L&S) there would be no support from the top at Director General and Ministerial level. We had to deliver!

But we were on safe ground, because although we didn't realise it at the time, Eric Gibson and Duncan McIntrye (Eric’s boss) were old duck and quail shooting mates, and we learned that the theory and practice of group breeding had already been mai mai chat!

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