November 21, 2008

Lands & Survey: 6. Sheep & cattle breeding in New Zealand

History of NZ Lands & Survey Department Angus & Romney breeding schemes - Part 6

By Dr Clive Dalton & Dr Doug Lang

The momentum and enthusiasm created by the sheep scheme soon spread to the 30,000 Angus cattle run in the Rotorua superintendency. The technical side of the sheep scheme was looked after by Graeme Hight, so I took on the job of organising the technical side of a cattle scheme. The project was drawn up and presented to Eric Gibson in 1969 in the Rotorua office and was approved immediately. It began by screening the cows on Waihora at weaning in February-March 1970.

Finding the good cows
The first decision was to define what was a good cow. In our view, it was a cow that weaned a good calf each year. To find them easily and quickly was the next question, as it was certainly not practical to go around and mark cows in the paddock with good calves at foot, like we did with twinning two tooths.

The managers and staff on the surrounding blocks carried out what was a very simple idea. At weaning, all the calves were separated then weighed (if scales were available) and the heaviest were kept. If there were no scales, the biggest calves were drafted off. The next step was to separate them through a good strong fence, till they had mothered up again (see below). A few days later both mother and calf were drafted off and sent to Waihora.

Photo a day after separating the 'top' calves from the cows.
Their mothers are back bonding with them, so are easy to identify from the rest of the herd which has given up looking for their calves and moved away.

So these cows started our first “Angus nucleus herd” and they looked a picture. There wasn't one among them that you would have thrown out because of some physical feature. But remember the “genetic sin” of this exercise; none of these cows had a pedigree to qualify then for a stud book, and we were going to breed bulls from them! Although they had all been bred by bulls purchased from registered stud herds, that still didn’t count.

We didn’t keep the good calves from these good cows, as they could have been big for all sorts of environmental reasons as well as good genetics. This could not be sorted out at this stage. The heifer calves from these good cows went back into the herd so their genes were not wasted and if they were good performers; they would be picked up in any further screening.

The fun started with the practical problems of first identifying commercial cows not used to close human contact in wide open spaces. An upset Angus cow was a very different propostion to a skitty two tooth ewe.

Up to this time, recorded cows in New Zealand studs and research herds wore chains around their necks carrying a heavy numbered brass tag. You could hear them rattling from miles away when cows were mustered. Graeme Hight was adamant that this had to be the way for the cows at Waihora. Clive viewed this with little enthusiasm thinking of all the work involved.

Plastics were developing rapidly at this time and a numbered plastic tag appeared on the market which was ideal to replace the brass tags, and a wide range of nylon cords were also available. The two were ideal for the job but there was concern about how to tie the unbreakable nylon around the cow’s neck to carry the tag.

Doug Lang remembers getting the germ of an idea from Frank Paviour the saddler and canvas company in Hamilton. It was a metal non-slip tie which we got made and this became the standard for cattle identification on the station and the proposed system for the L&S cows. Clive Dalton still had little enthusiasm for tieing these around the necks of a few hundred snorting bellowing Angus cows. But at least it was an improvement in chains that had to be joined by small shackels with screws.

But the day was saved by the Ackland brothers (John and Mark) who had been to the USA and seen Ritchey tags. They purchased the right to make them in New Zealand and formed a company called 'Little River Products', and Plastic Products in Hamilton was where it was happening. The first samples were inspected with little enthusiasm as they seemed soft and would not last, but they sure passed the “destruction test” as nobody could tear them apart. Plenty doubters tried I well remember.

Against Graeme Hight’s better judgement, we purchased the first batch of tags which I remember were still warm when I collected them from the factory in Te Rapa. The tags came with white ink to write the numbers on, and a nasty looking pointed dagger to push the tag through the ear. Once throught the slit it was held by a small arrow head.

Historic Day
So on one historic day, all the nucleus cows were yarded at Waihora and individually held in the crush. As Peter Guy did pregnancy tests via the cow’s recturm, Clive spearing their ears with a Ritchey tag in each. The poor salivating, roaring bailed cow didn't know which insult to concentrate on!

Tagging was tricky as the cow didn’t like the pain of the first stab, and if it flicked it’s head at that point, the dagger went into the ear and slit it right to the edge so the cow ended up with what looked like two ears on that side! Then she sure didn’t like her other ear being treated the same.

Checking that the arrowhead on the tag has gone through the hole and is holding.
The cow didn't like this much and you had to watch your fingers.

It was now clear to all that we could never have operated the scheme with any form of identification which involved a tag tied around a cow’s neck. So Ritchey tags were very much part of the genetic revolution.

The scheme was underway and was fully reported at the Massey Sheepfarmers' Conference in 1973, and at the Ruakura Farmers' Conference in 1974. It involved basic recording of each cow, performance testing of all bulls and heifers from weaning to yearling and 18 months of age, and then intensive selection for growth and reproduction after that.

The inaugural nucleus cows after tagging and Preg Diagnosis.
It's clear from their tail angle that they didn't enjoy the rectal PD experience.

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