February 5, 2014

No 4. Sheep Performance Recording in New Zealand. History - Group Breeding Schemes

By Dr Clive Dalton

 Identifying top ewes in large populations – Group Breeding Schemes

The larger the population - the greater the scope for selection
  Things really started to develop as interest grew in recording commercial ewes with Sheeplan, and practical ways of doing this got smarter.  It became obvious that there was a massive selection potential in large commercial flocks whether on the one farm, or in flocks on smaller properties where breeders could co-operate in groups.  In contrast, traditional stud flocks were small and just about every male lamb ended up being sold as a sire.

The concept of ‘Group Breeding Schemes’ (GBS) had arrived and took off like a rocket, driven by Prof Rae at Massey who helped the first groups to get going. Again Tony Parker and Peter Jackson were major driving forces the formation of the first group -  the Romney Development Group (RDG).

It was a very simple concept.  Breeders screened their flocks for two-tooth ewes with twins, and contributed these to a ‘nucleus’ flock on one of the member’s farms who had the facilities and high recording standards to run it. Then in return under agreed rules, contributors got one ram back from the nucleus for every five ewes contributed.  There was an agreed system of ram ‘picking order’ and price which was all done on a special day with an annual meetings which were hotbeds of enthusiasm about sheep breeding and improvement.

The diagram to illustrate the principle of ewes in and rams out of the central flock
Group Breeding Schemes were set up in the main breeds throughout New Zealand, and when reported at world conferences overseas, the concept generated enormous interest with many breeders coming to New Zealand to see what went on.

We scientists at Whatawhata were instrumental in setting up the Lands & Survey Group Breeding Scheme on blocks around Rotorua (population of 180,000 ewes) with the nucleus flock being run at Waihora, and it was a regular venue for overseas visitors.

We also got involved with the Auckland Romney Development Group (ARDG) and the Perendale Genetic Development (PGD). MAF SBOs were heavily involved in other schemes, such as Lindsay Galloway in Christchurch who drove the North Canterbury Corriedale GBS and he started and ran on in the Chatham Islands for Romney breeders which is still having measurable results.

The ARDG were the prime movers in breeding for resistance to Facial Eczema (FE), as the disease was a major problem for all their group members’ flocks.  The late Colin Southey was the MAF SBO at Pukekohe and drove this work with a passion.  He was greatly supported by Andy Dalton who was the general FAO at Pukekohe at the time and they covered the west coast area from Port Waikato down to Raglan.  In bad years in those days, farmers would regularly lose 40% of their hoggets with FE, so they didn’t need motivation!

If Colin hadn’t made frequent trips to Ruakura which I remember well as we always chatted, and pestered Neil Towers and Barry Smith to get their lab work of dosing rams with the fungal toxin (sporidesmin), out into the field to help farmers, millions more sheep would have suffered and died a terrible death. 

A memorable day for me was when during an international sheep breeding conference in New Zealand, I accompanied Dr Charlie Smith and Dr Cradoch Roberts from the Animal Breeding Research Organisation in Edinburgh, and my University of Wales Ph.D. supervisor Gwyn Lloyd Williams from Bangor to see the work at Waihora.  Farm manager Peter Roberts was pleased to meet Cradoch who was an ex-Bangor fluent Welsh-speaking Roberts.

The concept went worldwide
A group was started in North Wales with Welsh Mountain Sheep and that’s why G.L. Williams came to see how things were done.  From early days, many Corriedale sheep were exported to Chile and the Falklands, and some of our SBOs were heavily involved in giving advice from afar.   In Alan Marshall’s case, visiting regularly to provide hands-on assistance – which he continues today.  Alan says that there’s now plenty of evidence that the old genetic theories we preached have clearly worked in practice!

Political genetics
After my involvement with Sheeplan, and especially the Lands & Survey Romney and Angus breeding schemes, I soon realised that there was a new branch of genetics to add to Mendelian genetics, population genetics, evolutionary genetics and others –I called it ‘political genetics’.  The basic unwritten rules dictated what could be said and done to avoid upsetting breeders, stud stock managers and their organisations - who seemed to claim a God-like status.

I well remember being invited to meet with Dalgety’s seniour stud stock manager (Tim Russell) and his team in their Victoria Street office in Hamilton about my role (as a MAF public servant) in assisting Rotorua Lands & Survey to breed Angus bulls.  I thought it was to talk genetics, but Tim made it very clear that they wanted to know why I was recommending that bulls should be put up for public auction, in competition with the ‘private sector’ (i.e. Dalgetys), so they missed out on their 13% commission.

Tim didn’t like my point that as the whole project had been paid for by taxpayers’ money – and we were ‘public servants’, the blocks around Taupo and any commercial farmer who had the money should have every right to the bulls. Tim’s view was that ‘the government’ should not be in the business of competing with private business, which is a valid point – and still an issue today with Landcorp.

The ram story was even worse, as the Romney Society went ballistic when they learned of the first sale of rams from Waihora to commercial sheep farmers.

Memories from Peter Jackson - Piquet Hill Romneys

I well remember spending a day with Clive Dalton, Graeme Hight, and Bob Black at Waihora, checking the soundness of  rams to be used as sires in the recorded screened (elite) Waihora  Flock.

Some days later I received a phone call from Selwyn Shannon, on behalf of the Romney Breed Society inquiring as to my ability or authority to advise these MAF “scientists”, considering I was not an official judge of the Romney Society, and that I had no authority as a registered Romney breeder, to advise on the finer points of the Romney, and that the Minister of Agriculture had been advised of the concern that the Romney Breed Society had over this matter.

I well remember Clive Dalton and Graeme Hight coming out to Te Akau to look at a top ram from G Bendall, NZ Romney Development Group, which had broken out with Facial Eczema. They suggested I contact a MAF Advisory Officer in Pukekohe (Colin Southey) re testing for F.E. tolerance on hot F.E. paddocks to identify sires which were showing some tolerance to F.E.  This was the beginning of a whole new era in sheep breeding in hard Raglan hill country.

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