February 5, 2014

No 12. Sheep Performance Recording in New Zealand. History - Big concerns

By Dr Clive Dalton

Two big concerns
Thinking about the past - and especially the future, I still have two things bothering me, as a result of ‘the law of unintended consequences’.  It’s easy to ignore these – either through ignorance or hope that they won’t happen on your watch!  Here they are:

1. Sheep size and live weight

80kg ewes under the hammer at Kauroa

Did we really want our sheep to end up the size of donkeys?  Well we’ve certainly got them now.  Ewes have increased massively in size and weight and it was so predictable.  I remember one Sheeplan Technical Group meeting in the Public Service Building in Wellington, when we were discussing genetic correlations between traits such as weight of lambs weaned and liveweight.

 I put it to Al Rae and Neil Clarke that if we carried on the way we were going with large and positive correlations, would we end up with bigger ewes – and did we really want that? The human brain is wired to always assume that ‘bigger is always better and this is certainly the case with farm animals.

Al and Neil sort of agreed, but with a lot of head scratching and pipe sucking, as we knew that this would involve more feed inputs, or lower stocking rates and all kinds of other ‘unintended consequences’ issues of ‘efficiency’, which as a concept is very hard to research.  

Attempts have been made where medium sized ewes were shown to be more efficient per hectare than large ewes, but it has had little impact on change in the industry.  And under the present research climate – this very important research will never be done.

I talk to many sheep farmers today who report that their shearers are complaining, and want ram charges (1.5) for shearing ewes, which are now  100+ kg, with greater risks to their health and safety. Rams are almost impossible for a single person to tip up and stretch to reach the crutch. Some shearers require the rams to have been given a tranquiliser to get the wool off them.

 There’s no way older farmers can do their own dagging and crutching (even with a cradle), and most cannot afford to pay contractors to do the job.  Few geneticists (and I suspect even fewer vets) I know ever did much dagging or shearing!  We did at Whatawhata but with no competitive spirit, I made sure I didn’t work fast so was told I could leave early!

For years rams from breeders in hard Raglan hill country were always considered to be inferior to rams from ‘ram alley’ in the Manawatu and Wairarapa, and stock agents wouldn’t take clients near the Raglan sheep – even their Raglan clients. The agent’s mantra was always – ‘too blardy small, too blardy small!’  And nothing has changed – so ignore or only make a token attempt to check the records and buy ‘bigger bolder rams’ from somewhere else – even if they are not resistant to Facial Eczema or can survive a drought!

If rams died of FE after their first season – it was no problem for the agent as there were always plenty more waiting for a trip North.  The annual Frankton ram fair is still full of them – big bold rams with no performance records and perhaps a pedigree for the few interested buyers.  My favourite auctioneers mantra sums it up – ‘if you like him sir, stick with him’ !

2. Extra fertility

Triplets seem like a good idea - but is the result 3 top lambs at weaning?
From the early days of Sheeplan, our major aim was to increase the fertility of the national flock which was mainly Romney, which in those days was around 90% lambs docked/100 ewes joined.  This was abysmal, but for a number of historic reasons emphasis was put on small blocky sheep for the Smithfield lamg trade, then when wool was king, the sheep were covered all over from their hocks to the eyes and couldn’t see.

Now (2013) lambing percentage average is 180% with some flocks achieving well over 200%, with commentators giving much of the credit to the importation of the Finnish Landrace –a breed selected for large litters of lambs where they were housed and the lambs hand reared.

After the initial ‘burst’ of Finn genes to boost fertility, the breed is now an important component (usually about a quarter) in most ‘composite’ breeds, which in the early days of Sheeplan would probably not have been acceptable on Sheeplan. 

In my view, looking back we could have done without the Finn, as we had all the genes here in our own breeds (see blog on Invermay fertility flock) to have done the job even better, without all the problems with their wool and poor carcasses that the Finn caused.  Currently there is great concern over the damage the Finn has done to the increasing demand for ‘mid micron’ wool for which the New Zealand Halfbred and Corriedale were famous.

The overall bold assumption was always that more lambs produced more profit – and in the early years, that was certainly true.  But now it’s by no means true with flocks having 40% triplets in hoggets and these high fertility genes producing 10% quads in older ewes.

 Continual rising costs (which never get media attention) have killed a lot of the profit from these extra multiple lambs.   The ewes (and especially the lambs) need extra feed or lower stocking rate, and the lambs are on the farm longer into summer and need shearing (for little return), drenching every 28 days according to some best practice, dagging at least twice, fly protection done twice - and extra worry that sheep farmers could well do without at any time, never mind in the heat of summer. 

More hill country farms now have to try and fatten more of their own weaned lambs, as the traditional fattening country is now in dairy support. So this means more spent on fertilisers to grown better pastures, or tipping these weaners on to an over-supplied store market starting in December in the North Island, when feed is going off in both quantity and quality.

So back to the question.  Is very high fertility on hill country worth it? My concern is that nobody is currently doing any work to find out, and I doubt very much if it will ever be done. 

How long before the third lamb starts to fail due to lack of milk?

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