February 5, 2014

No 5. Sheep Performance Recording in New Zealand. History - Breed structure

By Dr Clive Dalton

Breed structure - the famous triangle

I've drawn the traditional breed structure in the first triangle.  The registered stud breeders with 'pedigree' sheep are in the apex, then in the middle tier are  breeders who ‘multiply’ these 'stud' genes (both ewes and rams0 before being passed down the structur to the commercial sheep farmers in the base through the purchase of rams.

When talking to sheep farmers and visitors over the years, I must have drawn hundreds of these triangles on black boards, white boards, walls of all sorts, palms of hands, the backs of envelopes, and even on woolshed floors with raddle, while discussing the stupidity of the concept, for which I was well remembered by Breed Societies. 

I made a big thing of the fact that this misguided concept had arrived in New Zealand from ‘home’, and it had not only stuffed up New Zealand genetic thinking, but it had also spread and done similar damage to other countries of Britain’s once great empire.We Brits had conned the world - which always went down well!
In the first triangle, note the thick line representing a 'registration block' which fulfills the long-held breeding lore that genes from sheep in the commercial base could never be allowed to re-circulate back up to the top studs in the apex.  

 I used to hear that if this happened in both cattle and sheep, ‘dirty genes’ (whatever they were) would get back up into the stud flocks and contaminate the genepool.  Genes could only flow down the theory said to preserve the 'purity' of the stud flocks!  

In the second triangle below, I've drawn a better and forward-looking structure where holes have been blown in the blockages to allow good performing ewes to move up and contribute their superior genes to the 'elite' flocks. These flocks qualify to be elite on the basis of their performance to become parents of future generations in the commercial base via rams.  Just having a pedigree carries no weight at all, unless it's based on performance data.

The start of a revolution – breeding rams from commercial ewes

Piquet Hill composite rams bred from high performance recorded ewes
The development of Sheeplan coincided with the massive change in sheep breeding shown in the second triangle. Indeed, it was more like a revolution than a change! 

It all started when a rising number of breeders started recording ewes in their commercial flocks through Sheeplan because these sheep couldn't be ignored - and would easily qualify as 'ram mothers'.  They were as good and if not better than the top ewes in their registered stud flock.  I well remember Tony Parker or Wairunga stud and Peter Jackson of Piquet Hill stud at Te Akau leading the charge. There was an excitement in the hill country that got us all caught up in it.

So the obvious next step was to request, and put pressure on the Romney Sheep Breeders’ Association, to have these sheep registered and disseminate their genes widely through the whole Romney population.

As far as Breed Societies were concerned, asking to be allowed to breed rams from commercial ewes was seen to be much more than a request – it was a direct threat to the whole concept of stud breeding, with its misguided theory of only stud breeders having the top genes, and commercial sheep, even when sired by top stud rams could only have inferior genes.  It was biological nonsense of course, but those were the rules, and were like the tablets hewn in stone and brought down from on high to be THE word.

But as Tony Parker has expressed so well in his Wairunga flock history:
 ‘During the 1960s we were living in a kind of vacuum.  It would be ten years before any of the established ram breeders would take up the concept of performance recording as a basis of sheep selection.’

But there were so many other Romney breeders who joined Parker and Jackson and their fellow breeders that the Romney Council had (over time) to concede defeat, although looking back, they wouldn’t call it that. Leading breeder members realised that it was inevitable and that this concept of screening sheep in large populations to find high-performing genes in tough commercial conditions, would guarantee the survival of the breed – which it has done.

Meeting the breed associations and societies
This was at times a delicate exercise, and I had to watch my language. Meetings with the Romney Sheep Breeders’ Association in Feilding with President Henry Rutherford (and former NFRS Advisory Committee chairman) were especially memorable.  What didn’t help my reception was because the Romney Association had provided ewes for my Breed Comparison trial at Whatawhata, and from the initial results, their sheep didn’t show up too well on our hard hills as they had come from good flat country, most of which is now in dairying.

I remember the prize winning Romney stud ram that Henry had put in the woolshed for my inspection. I was flabbergasted at the massive size of this creature, and the fact that I couldn’t work out which end was which due to the amount of wool on his head. There was no way the poor beast could see but I had to pay it flowing accolades. And I also remember Henry proudly showing me the signed photo on his piano of a young Prince Charles who had visited his stud on a New Zealand tour.

Henry once featured on a TV farming programme at the time showing how they recorded their stud sheep at lambing. What was memorable was the way the shepherd rolled a bottomless corrugated iron water tank over each ewe and her lambs until they were fully bonded.  One of our Whatawhata technician wags suggested we’d better put a requisition in for a couple of hundred of these tanks for our next lambing out on our back range paddocks!  He didn’t suggest how we’d anchor them down.

In contrast, meetings with Vern Clarke and Ian Coop and the Coopworth Society were very stimulating, as being a ‘new’ breed they only had commercial ewes to breed from, and these were the core of their rapid success.

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