February 5, 2014

No 1. Sheep Performance Recording in New Zealand. History - First developments

  By Dr Clive Dalton

In New Zealand, sheep performance recording was started with the single objective of advancing genetic improvement in the national flock. This contrasted with performance recording in Britain, run by the Meat and Livestock Commission to improve flock management.

The National Flock Recording Scheme (NFRS)
The NFRS was designed and implemented to bring about genetic improvement in all stud flocks in New Zealand, so that genetic gain could be passed on to commercial sheep farmers through rams purchased from stud breeders.  The NFRS evolution involved a number of stages, and probably more hours spent in committee rooms than in sheep yards and woolsheds.  Here are some key stages:

1.     In the 1950s, Professor Al Rae of Massey College (later Massey University) came back from his Ph.D. studies at Iowa State University in the USA under J.L Lush and L. N. Hazel, with a concept for a genetic improvement programme for the New Zealand Romney.  He presented it to the NZ Romney Breed Society council but the reception could be described as cool at best.
2.     About the same time, Rae and Massey Senior Lecturer Bob Barton visited sheep breeders and Young Farmer’s Clubs to talk about their ideas on performance recording – and to get some response to the idea.  
3.     Romney breeder Tony Parker of Wairunga in Havelock North remembers their visit and was one of the first to put their concept into practice, and with Rae and Barton’s help, (and their students Graeme Hight and Neil Clarke), they produced a pilot scheme on hand-cranked calculators.  
4.     Parker was clearly a pioneer of sheep recording in New Zealand, and he records his most memorable day when the first Selection Index for a sheep in New Zealand was produced as Saturday 16 December 1961.  His Wairunga Romney Stud had made history.
5.     In 1965, Parker visited the USA and UK to meet key academics and people in the business of sheep breeding, explaining what he was doing and getting their support.  Back home he was having problems with the Romney Association promoting the concept of recording data on the farm, and then ending up with computer outputs to indicate genetic merit, as there was a great fear of what damage these ‘computer sheep’ could do to the breed. Parker had to reassure himself about this, and it took a bit of time until the results confirmed that it was the only way to go.
6.     On December 15 1965, the Minister of Agriculture the Rt. Hon. Brian Talboys visited Parker to see what was involved in performance recording ‘in the field’.  Tony Parker records that Talboys was accompanied by Dick Harrison (MP for Hawke’s Bay), Doug Carter (MP for Raglan) and local MAF advisors Frank Collin and John Nott. Al Rae and Bob Barton from Massey were also there.
7.     On February 15 1966 Talboys called a meeting in his office to discuss a proposal for performance recording for sheep and beef cattle.
8.     Those present were Dr Alan Johns (MAF Assistant Director General), Dr L.R. Wallace (MAF Research Director), and Ted Clarke (MAF Superintendant Whatawhata Hill Country Research Station).  Clark was asked to set out full details of what would be involved in a sheep performance-recording scheme, including a suggested structure for an organising body.
9.     Funds were to be made available to start the scheme from the Department of Agriculture (later the Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries MAF), the NZ Meat Producers’ Board and the NZ Wool Board. 
10. The Sheep and Wool Division of the Department of Agriculture (DOA) would operate the scheme, with their field staff made responsible for on-farm operations.  The DOA would be responsible for the computer programming needed, and the handling of the data coming in from breeders and then after processing, sending back breeders’ processed data in time to make selection decisions.
11. The Romney Sheep Breeders’ Association had formed a small research group of veterinarian Dr David Quinliven and Cliff Martin called ‘The NZ Romney Survey’ which collected and analysed data from breeders’ flocks. The Survey supported the NFRS proposal and offered to undertake fieldwork in selected flocks in their survey.
12. On 26 November 1965, Tony Parker recorded that the day after Graeme Hight had completed the Wairunga first Ram Selection Index, a small group of Romney breeders (some who were at Wairunga to collect rams) discussed plans to pool resources and form a Romney Breeding Group.  They were Bill and Graham Bendell, Bill Cullen, Bernie Hayden and Holmes Warren.  This was another historic date in NZ sheep breeding.

Photo from Tony Parker's family history. Meeting at Wairunga to celebrate the first sheep Index. 

The NFRS was controlled by an Advisory Committee set up to represent all parties interested in the scheme. As it was set up before the needs of all the users were fully represented, the committee operated from 1967 to 1974 with the following membership:
·      NZ Meat Board – C.F. Jones.
·      NZ Wool Board – B.S. Trolove.
·      Federated Farmers – F.H. Spackman.
·      Romney Sheep Breeders’ Association. – J.H. Rutherford.
·      United Breed Societies Association – D.L. Ensor; W.J. McLeod.NZ.
·      NZ Meat and Wool Boards’ Sheep and Beef Cattle Survey – I.M. Cairney.
·      Department of Agriculture.  NFRS Director – E.A Clark, and Assistant Director General - Dr A.T. Johns.

·      Chairman – J. H. Rutherford.
·      DOA Flock Recording Officer – I. McDonald
·      DOA Overseer of data bureau – A. South

It was anticipated that an ‘Interim Scheme’ would operate for three to four years as a free service to breeders wishing to participate, and then when any problems were ironed out, it would be handed over to a ‘National Recording Council’.

More committees:
·      In 1972 the Dryden report recommended extension and enlargement of the NFRS and drew attention to some specific problem. Dryden apparently was a member of the NZ Meat Board.

·      The Livestock Improvement Technical Advisory Committee (LITAC) was then appointed by the Minister of Agriculture (Mr Doug Carter) to examine technical problems of dairy, beef and sheep improvement for the eventual formation of a Livestock Improvement Organisation (LIO).

·      The then Director General of Agriculture (Dr Alan T. Johns) specifically asked LITAC to examine revision of the NFRS, to meet the demands of users which had built up over the early period of operation, and to consider revision which would allow transfer of the NFRS to the Livestock Improvement Organisation.

·      At one of these meetings I remember Ruakura geneticist Dr Alan Carter suggesting the name ‘Sheeplan’ for the revamped NFRS, as we already had ‘Beefplan’, which was the national performance recording scheme for beef cattle, and which had been operating successfully for a number of years.  Beefplan was very basic in what it provided as powerful computers were yet to be developed.

·      In 1972, the Minister of Agriculture formed the Interim Sheep Committee (ISC) chaired by John Daniell to replace the NFRS Advisory Committee and to fully represent users. The ISC had to liaise with LITAC, consider fees and organise the election of a replacement body.

NFRS Growth
In 1967, in the first year of NFRS, there were 348 flocks of all breeds covering 77,000 ewes. By 1973, these had grown to 630 flocks, and 170,000 ewes, in no small measure due to the development of the Coopworth sheep, driven by Professor Ian Coop and Vern Clarke at Lincoln College (later University).  The new Coopworth Breed Society was unique as it was mandatory for all flocks to be performance recorded.

By 1985 when the NFRS had become Sheeplan, there were 30 different breeds, 1303 flocks and 307,000 ewes recorded.  This really has been a success story.

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