February 5, 2014

No 7. Sheep Performance Recording in New Zealand. History - recording ideas

By Dr Clive Dalton

Recording ideas
Masses of smart ideas came in from MAF field staff and breeders, and I loved collating and following them up to get photographs. MAF had full-time photographers and full darkroom facilities in Wellington and at Ruakura which I used, and I had a MAF camera for basic jobs.  Black and white film was the order of the day.

Bram Uljee’s ideas
Bram Uljee (photo left)  in the Genetics Section at Ruakura, who had also been a technician at Whatawhata, was a legend for coming up with ideas to make recording easier. 

Bram published them in a book, co-authored by the New Zealand Farmer editor Neil Rennnie and is a great record of what was done before the age of electronics (see further reading).

Lambing bags

Ex army gasmask bag which was adapted as a lambing bag
Carrying all the tagging gear (tags, hole punch, closing pliers, raddle and more) and then the lambing book around the paddock was always a challenge, especially in the rain.  We used the old army gasmask bag with extra narrow pockets stitched on the outside to hold the tag sticks. This was pretty good and there were plenty available. 

But then somebody who got sick of a bag around their neck came up with the idea of modifying a builder’s apron for the job, so all the gear was in front of you and easy to get at.  A bigger cover was made over the main central pocket to stop the rain wetting the notebook.

Brass tags
The numbered brass tags from the Farmacy in Palmerston North used to come on lengths of cardboard, which when they got wet collapsed, and all the tags ended up in the bottom of your bag in a heap.

Ram with tag in bottom of ear - not recommended.  Better in the top edge of the ear for easier reading.
  It was important to keep tags in numerical order as you tagged each lamb, so we put the tags on a wooden stick held on with a castrating rubber ring which you could quickly slide on and off with your thumb.

You could push a brass tag through a lamb’s soft wet ear without punching a hole, but it was best to punch a clear hole and make sure the tag was clinched correctly so each side met perfectly. 

The really important trick was the insert the tag in the middle of the ear and on the top so there was room left for the ear to grow. If the tag was put in too near the end, the ear would grow with a permanent droop and be hard to read later.

We went to enormous lengths to get breeders to put brass tags in the correct place in the left (near side) ear, so they could be read at recording times without having to grab the ear, or put the sheep’s head in a half-Nelson wrestling hold, and where shearers knew to find them so they were warned. Hitting a brass tag with a handpiece could lead to a very nasty accident – and some very choice language.

A brass tag in a good postion in the ear.  It can be read without touching it.

 Some breeders put the brass tag in the left ear for ewe lambs and the right ear for males which seemed a good idea, but was asking for trouble at shearing time. There were surprisingly few ear infections from tagging, considering all the bugs that must have been around in the paddock, especially in wet weather.  We were supposed to wash the tagging gear regularly in disinfectant but it didn’t get done often enough to make much difference.

We sometimes needed to duplicate a brass tag when one had been torn out and lost, so we got blanks from the Farmacy and our resident engineer at Whatawhata made a small anvil to hold the tag firmly in the vice so we could punch new numbers on it.   This was much easier than sending away for new individual tags.

Coloured wire twisters
Somebody came up with the idea of wire ‘twisters’ to fasten on to brass tags. These were short lengths (100mm) of plastic-coated wire of different bright colours, that you threaded through the end of the brass tag and twisted tight to denote different groups. 

We made these from old electric cable and I think you could buy them from Farmacy.  The possible colour combinations were infinite and avoided the need for raddle marks on the wool and could be easily cut out when finished.

You could also put the twister through the hole punched in the sheep’s ear but it was better to put them in the tag.

Stick on labels
I remember us mucking around with these but we gave the idea away.

Plastic tags
Self piercing plastic ear tags were just coming on stream when Sheeplan got going, so we put out a lot of advice about their use, especially correct placement in the ear so they could be read from both front and rear, were not too near the head to remain readable, and not too far out to make the ear droop.  And most important, that the plastic tag number was the same number as the brass to avoid potential confusion when recording.

There was one brand (leader tags) which were slipped through a punched hole in the ear, and it often paid to punch the hole and let it heal before sliding in the tag. We used these in different colours to denote groups as they could be easily changed.

The first plastic tags we had to number with a pen, and they soon faded and had to be redone – on the sheep. But numbered tags of different colours were soon available that lasted a fair few years in our high radiation climate.  We were adamant that breeders didn’t use old tags, or replace a lost tag with an old one with a different number.  It was a nightmare when you asked for tag number and you had a choice of three!


Some breeders used to take notches out of the plastic tag to record information, and this was a smart idea. 

But the most drastic recoding trick was when a ewe had disgraced herself at lambing, the tag was cut out and her ear split from the tag hole to the tip.   

There was no mistaking her coming up the drafting race at culling time.  

Neck tags
 Having to catch a ewe at lambing to read her brass tag (before the age of large flag-type plastic ear tags) caused great stress, as often the ewe would take off and leave the lambs – with you hoping she’d come back to them later.  If you could catch her, she ended up tied to the fence or to a large metal cork-screw tether for the night beside her confused lambs.

Aluminium plates with hand painted numbers
So with so many ewes to identify without catching them, somebody (don’t know who now) came up with the idea of a large tag or label around the sheep’s neck.  The first ones we made at Whatawhata were from hardboard before thin aluminium plates became available, which had to be hand painted and numbered.  Our technicians at Whatawhata came up with a clever numbered style so that if the top of the number was covered in wool, you could still work out what number it was.

Then numbered Formica tags became available (can’t remember where from), which were excellent and so easy to read. 

It was a bit of a performance putting neck tags on before lambing, and recording the brass tag number against the neck tag number on a checklist.  Taking them off was more difficult if they’d worked their way into the wool.  If you missed one the shearers would find it and certainly let you know in no uncertain manner.

See in the Aglink (FPP 761) by Dalton & Uljee that ‘the letters should be 200mm high and readable from 1-15m, the cord should be 720mm long and tied with a reef knot.  It says that fishing line is not suitable and baler twine must be avoided at all costs’!

Tagging at docking
Many breeders who joined Sheeplan with large commercial flocks, and who had been driven to ‘easy care’ systems didn’t want to go near their ewes at lambing to collect data.  Although we in Sheeplan fully supported this principle, we were always a bit worried about high error rates in pedigreeing offspring, knowing what Kilgour and Welch had found on mismothering errors.

But on the other hand, we accepted that keeping right away from the lambing paddock could allow ewes and lambs to bond in plenty of space, which could in practice result in more accurate data.

So farmers soon worked out a system of tagging at docking, where in each paddock they drove each individual ewe and her lambs into the pen, did the recording, and then docked the lambs.  It could be done at a great pace with only a small team and a quiet heading dog, as the ewes and lambs could be quickly drafted off and raced into the docking pen.

Common recording errors
If we are honest, there are always errors made when copying data from one sheet to another, so we put a lot of effort into discouraging farmers from doing this. The most vulnerable area was to get the lambing data from the Field Notebook on to the computer input sheets.  Our Wellington staff couldn’t handle Field Note Books being sent to them, and in any case most breeders wouldn’t let them leave the farm!

With other sheets for live weights and fleece weights, we encouraged breeders to fill in the computer input sheets at the yards and woolshed, and not to have any intermediate sheets.  If they did, the transcription job would be left ‘for the first wet day’, and it never seemed to rain for months, putting great pressure on our Wellington processing staff.

The MAF processing team didn’t mind sheets coming in with stains, odours and boot prints on them - no problem at all.  They were always keen to get out of Wellington to visit breeders and see what was going on, and breeders really appreciated this.  It was great for breeders when they phoned the Sheeplan office to have met the person on the other end of the phone, and vice versa. Great friendships were forged over the years.

In one Aglink (FPP 360) Dalton & Uljee listed some common errors that happened when recording.  These were based on our own experience and comments from our MAF field staff.  Reading them now, some seem a bit hilarious!

  • Misreading brass tags because of poor eyesight, or the person either not owning specs or forgetting to bring them.
  •  Number transcription errors when reading tags or writing numbers down.  Some people (who may not admit it) reverse digits.  Many people have some form of dyslexia or may be colour blind and should not be allowed to read tags.
  • Numbers mis-heard as the tag reader does not speak clearly, or whose voice is drowned out by background noise such as banging metal doors or barking dogs.
  •  Failure to keep a set order of doing things, e.g. in the lambing paddock
  •  At lambing time, failing to check that all data have been recorded and checked before leaving each ewe and her lambs. No cross checking system in operation.
  • Failing to check that the ewe has actually lambed, and that the lambs she has are hers.
  • A poor tagging system for the flock and trying to save money by using old tags.
  • Writing that is not clear and using blunt pencils and defective poor-quality ballpoint pens. (We insisted that pencils were  best).
Those were not ‘smoke-free’ days, and technical staff regularly worked with a half-lit fag hanging from the side of their mouths which impaired their diction. But nobody dare comment so we tried to ask a non-smoker to do the tag reading when weighing sheep or wool – but were not always successful.  We insisted that the tag reader spoke the number direct to the recorder, who read it back to double check.

Hey - Sally wants to see you!
Every morning before our staff at Whatawhata went to do their lambing round, there were always notes (often rude) in their office mailboxes about errors and queries from the previous day.  If the office girls caught the technicians, they enjoyed reinforcing their messages with ribald comments, reminding them about things like ewes are only supposed to lamb once!

Tagging older sheep
Older ewes that had never had their ears grabbed before, never mind had a hole punched in them were a challenge – to say the least!  I soon learned to be smart on this job and always grabbed the job of checking the records, and handing the tags to the unlucky person who had to punch the hole in the sheep’s ear.

Without fail, when the punch bit which the sheep did not appreciate, this hefty fit animal leapt up in the air, smacking the tagger in the head on the way up, and banging their knuckles on the side of the race on the way down!  Thankfully we didn’t have a column in the records for expletives!

Mature ewes had ears like tanned leather and it took some force to close the punch. And these old girls remembered this experience from a human predator for the rest of their lives.  So this was why we put so much emphasis on placing brass tags in the correct position in ears at lambing, so they could be read later in life without even touching the ear.  When some old ewes saw you getting close, they started shaking their heads in anticipation of pain, or dived under the rear end of the sheep in front boring forward in the pen.  Sheep have long memories!

The raised race
Peter Guy who was the first manager of the Waihora Lands and Survey twinning flock was the first (from memory) to build a raised race, and we copied the idea at Whatawhata. 

The sheep went up a steep ramp to stand in single file in the race with their feet visible at eye level through a 300mm gap.  This was to inspect feet which was an important trait in selection, as at the time footrot was a major scourge and there was enough evidence from breeders to show that it had a strong genetic component. Breeders said that you should trim the feet of infected sheep off by the jugular!

Inspecting feet, especially in rams, was never easy in a pen, as they kept moving around, and you could never see them in a normal relaxed stance. And tipping rams over was hopeless. The race was magic as it was amazing what you could learn about feet when you were at their level.  An example of another great idea to help the cause!

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