November 21, 2008

Lands & Survey: 2. Sheep & cattle breeding in New Zealand

History of NZ Lands & Survey Department Angus & Romney breeding schemes - Part 2

By Dr Clive Dalton & Dr Doug Lang

Gene flow
The theory was very simple; if genetic improvement came through selection, then there must be more scope for selection in a large flock or herd than in a small one. There was never any argument on this point. Every student who had been bored to death by animal genetics - and God knows there have been plenty, remember that.

The trouble was that in New Zealand and most other developed countries where the British have left their influence, the traditional "stud" flocks and herds were all small so everything with testicles had to be kept as a sire, and selection was consequently very limited.

This was never questioned by the breeder, of course, because all the animals were "purebreds" and "registered" in a flock or herd book which gave them a status that no “unregistered” animal could ever claim. This status was not to be questioned and had been supported by generations of NZ farmers and their stock agents, who at that time had the status of demi-gods. The ideas developed on that car journey were about to strike at the very core of NZ's breeding traditions.

The whole system was based on tradition, and the failure of people with the cheek to question it, either in theoretical or practical terms. A violent change in New Zealand’s breeding culture was required, and the Whatawhata team's attitudes and actions were about to spearhead.

We questioned the traditional triangular breed structure, where the studs in the apex passed genetic gain through “multiplying” breeders in the middle layer, down to the commercial breeders in the base. I must have drawn hundreds of these triangles on bar tables with spilt beer and on woolshed floors with chalk raddle when talking to farmers.

The traditional theory was so much hot air, and it was amazing how it was revered and how it lasted for so long. The so-called genetic improvement in the apex was not happening, simply because it couldn't. The stud flocks were too small and anything with four legs and the basic sex organs had to be kept as replacements. There were no such things as "culls"; there were only animals "surplus to requirements" that were bought by other keen young folk with the burning urge to become stud breeders.

There was no way in the world that any reverse flow of genetic material could be allowed to take place in this traditional breed structure. Commercial animals could never be registered when flock and herd books (eg Romney and Angus) were closed. Consequently this state of affairs removed the enormous genetic resources of large commercial flocks and herds in New Zealand from contributing to national genetic improvement.

It was a national disgrace (in our humble opinion) and we were brave enough to say so at farmers’ meetings and conferences. So it was not hard to see the massive genetic resources of L&S a gift from the Gods to prove what could be done when you had a population big enough to provide scope for selection. It was the application of theoretical population genetics at its best.

Some of us became infamous for our outbursts on the subject. On an Australian visit to speak to beef breeders, at a field day I likened the triangular breed structure in New Zealand to a blocked septic tank! I spoke with feeling as we had just had this experience in our new house on the Research Station. I remember having to cut a long of bamboo pole to poke through the ventilation mushroom on the top to free up the flow. My outburst resulted in a letter to the Director General of Agriculture from the Angus breed society suggesting that I be deported for disloyalty to New Zealand!

One visual item that helped our cause greatly was an early "Farming Today" TV programme which showed a famous Feilding Romney stud breeder putting bottomless water tanks over each ewe and twins as they lambed to ensure good and correct mothering straight after birth.

It also showed him deciding which was the sire of the lamb by holding the lamb up for visual inspection and looking at the mating date! It highlighted the very practices that commercial farmers were growing sick of, but didn't know how to change. But the battle was not only with traditional breeders, it was also with the many stock and station agents of the day who had the status of demi gods when it came to stock breeding. Their views, always spoken with plenty of volume, were not to be questioned.

The first sale of Romney rams from Waihora unregistered ewes. The Breed Association were not happy, but you can see from the size of the crowd that turned up that there was massive interest.

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