February 5, 2014

No 13. Sheep Performance Recording in New Zealand. History - Modern challenges

 By Dr Clive Dalton

Change was inevitable
My role in Sheeplan finished about 1979, and it was inevitable that with the phenomenal increase in the power of computers, that more sophisticated computations could be done faster, so more information could be provided for breeders – whether they needed it, or wanted it, or not.  It’s always hard to be certain about these differences.  

In 1989, Animalplan replaced Sheeplan, which was the concept of using the same computing power called ‘the genetic engine’ for other species like deer, goats and beef cattle improvement, which made a lot of sense. It was in fact one of the long-term concepts of the Livestock Improvement Technical Advisory Committee (LITAC) in 1972.

MAF’s responsibility declined as it was not seen as its job to bankroll sheep recording, and under Animalplan sheep breeders had the choice of getting their flock data processed by a number of different (and competitive) recording ‘bureaus’, such as the New Zealand Animal Breeding Trust and Flock Link, with all using the same genetic engine.  The government had realised that the private sector was the most appropriate place to run sheep recording in New Zealand.

So a company called Sheep Improvement Limited (SIL) was set up in June 1998 by the Meat and Wool Board to operate the national genetic database and provide Breeding Values and other genetic information through registered Service Providers.

SIL was later brought back under Meat and Wool New Zealand (MWNZ) as the ‘sheep performance recording and genetic evaluation service’ for the industry, to ‘improve genetic parameters and improve the quality of New Zealand flocks’.  The SIL website describes its role as ‘providing state of the art information to ram breeders’.  It should have added ‘and for commercial sheep farmers’.

Too much information

This is a visual horror!  It's the Ram Selection List, and has been like this for a long time. It illustrates the urgent need for SIL to find out what users think of it - and how long does it take to work out what they want and need from it. There has got to be a better way to show information than this layout started 50 years ago.

My burning question
Its great to see how things have progressed in sheep recording since the early days in terms of technology, but I’m still bothered by one burning question.  Have things really changed for the better in the sheep yards and woolsheds at ram picking time, making selecting sires easier for both the breeders and their clients – and all this leading to proven genetic gain in the national flock? 

I would like to think they have, but I have a very strong suspicion that they have not, and I’m worried that all the extra sophisticated data now available through SIL has not made things easier for the user.  I have a fear that for many breeders they as confused as ever they were in my day – but they won’t have openly voiced this concern to the SIL Board.  I can’t remember many breeders really getting stuck in to us involved with Sheeplan as it’s not in the nature of sheep farmers to do this.  I loved the very few who did!  They probable just went ahead and did their own thing despite our efforts, when they should have openly complained!

We made the big mistake in our day of assuming that if we boffins could produce new developments – they ‘had to be good for the farmer’.  Well, looking back now - they didn’t!

This was always done with genuine concern and with the best of our intentions, but things we never fully tested over time so we could run the cold eye of profitability over them.  It was all a bit too hard, and we were always in a hurry to get on to the next project.

New ideas were fired out with a ‘take it or leave it’ approach – and if farmers ignored them or only tried them for a short while, we blamed them for not seeing the full potential.  I often think looking back, that it was a good job farmers didn’t take up many of our whiz-bang ideas, as they’d have gone broke in no time!

What do sheep farmers want/need?
Weighing sheep at Piquet Hill. The laptop in the sheep yards.
This was always coming up in research circles as the reason for us turning up for work.  But it was a bed of nettles as we never knew who to ask, and after meetings with organisations like Federated Farmers, we never came home with a few clear ideas that could be made into a good research projects which would produce clear answers.

The biggest danger (and we fell into this trap regularly), was to ask people who we knew would give us the answers we wanted. We did this in all sincerity and not deliberately, but got trapped by the fact that the top farmers would always respond immediately – and give excellent feedback. It was almost impossible to get any feedback from breeders at the bottom end of the distribution, which was a great shame as they had as much right to get their needs met as any others.

I always enjoyed the company of Coromandel Romney breeder Viv Mackereth from Whitianga. Viv was good for Sheeplan as he always brought up issues that made us steady up, and remember the KISS principle.

The trap, which is so easy to fall into, (and it looks to me as if SIL are guilty of it) is to get into the mindset that the data is ‘the end’ when it’s only ‘the journey’!

But don’t blame the data
But I shouldn’t blame the ever-increasing sophistication of the information available for farmers. It’s like blaming guns for killing people – it’s people who pull their triggers.

So instead, I should be asking where are all the ‘support people’ in each region to help ram breeders and their clients to sort out their wants and needs, like we used to have in the Sheeplan days?  See my list elsewhere.

How could you put a value on their joint experience and skill? It would be impossible to assemble such a team today who could get stuck in over a wool table, the sheep yard crush pens or the shearing board.  It would be like meeting the old MAF Head Office moa walking up Lambton Quay!

Time to find out the truth

'Frankton Ram Fair' 2014.  Poll Dorsets under the hammer - ought solely on looks .  Vendors are on SIL
What we never did effectively, and what I think SIL needs to do right now before any more technical innovation is developed for breeders and ram buyers, is two things:

1. Do a survey of SIL ram breeders to find out how much of the information they receive from SIL, they actually use in their own flocks to make selection decisions.

2. Do a survey of SIL breeders’ clients to see which of the information available to them from the breeder, they actually use when buying rams.  And, most importantly of all, how much emphasis do they give to the SIL figures, compared to visual appraisal of the ram.

In my view the answers to these questions are critical, and here’s my reasons:
  • ·      The average age of sheep farmers is now well over 60, and at this age, most folk don’t want any more complexity in their lives, and certainly not any that involves more paper work.
  • ·      Many ram breeders report that their next generation family doesn’t want to take over the stud and all its capital investment, as they have other interests with better lifestyle and profit options.
  • ·      Many left the farm to board at good schools and went on to train for professions like law and accountancy, where they can predict where they’ll be and their salaries by their 40s. 
  • ·      Profits from ram sales have not kept up with rising costs and inflation.
  • ·      The costs of recording have kept rising, and are likely to continue.
  • ·      Sheep are disappearing fast due to the expansion of dairying, and this will not be reversed for a number of decades -if ever. 
  • ·      So for many farmers, ram breeding is now only a ‘break-even hobby’, and if they were honest, they’d make more money from producing meat from the rams as hoggets.
  • ·      This year, most stud breeders I know would have about 20-40 rams that have not found work for next season, and they are worth very little in the meat trade.  Some send them away to be made into dog sausage as a least-loss option.

The danger of surveys
I know that surveys and polls are dangerous territory, and it’s well known that they rely on recipients (who treat surveys as junk mail) filling in forms so you never get a high response.  To avoid this, it would be essential for SIL to appoint a person to contact sheep breeders and talk to them directly to ensure honest feedback.

Without good information to make sheep recording easier and economic, aging breeders will give the whole business away when they finish, and the ram breeding industry will decline, along with export earnings from the sheep industry.  This cannot be allowed to happen after all the work put in by so many great people over the last 50 years.

Was it all worthwhile?
The answer has got to be yes. Performance recording has played a huge role in the maintenance of lamb production over the last 30 years, and continues to do so. Ewe numbers have fallen from 70 million down to 30 million, but the weight of lamb exported has not fallen to the same extent and in fact it has almost been maintained. That surely speaks for itself.

Dalton/Horton 2014 conclusions - the future of sheep improvement?

Colin Horton
My former MAF colleague Colin Horton and I had a yarn recently about sheep, performance recording, genetic improvement and the state of the 2014 industry.  Colin was a top MAF Animal Husbandry Farm Advisory Officer and is now a private farm consultant with both New Zealand and international experience.

Colin has a special interest in genetics and animal breeding as he did his Masterate at Massey on the subject under Prof Al Rae, before going into Farm Advisory work for periods in Northland and the Waikato.  

One of his major MAF roles was to upskill the former Sheep and Wool Officers, who then became Sheep and Beef Officers in animal genetics, so they could service the information needs of both stud breeders who recorded on Sheeplan, and their ram buying clients.  It was no mean task, but the MAF staff in the field did a sterling job.  They all eventually disappeared when commercialisation and charging for their services became the order of the day.  It was a disaster but the bureaucrats called ‘progress’!

Here are our 2014 conclusions:
  •  Agricultural science graduates can now complete a degree from Massey with little animal genetics skills, as they are not one of the ‘easier options’ needed to accrue credits to get a degree.  So it’s easier to ditch the subject and do something of lower challenge as education costs are high and you can’t afford to repeat subjects.
  •   In any case, most emphasis in general farm advisory work is now on dairying where little breeding knowledge is needed, as the Livestock Improvement Corporation does all genetics and animal breeding extension.   Farm advisors with Dairy NZ for example are concerned with pasture and tend to give soils less emphasis which is the territory of the fertiliser reps, while animal health is the sole territory of veterinarians.
  •  So there are no specialist sheep consultants anywhere to help farmers in the sheepyards and woolsheds to interpret breeding information they get from Sheep Improvement Ltd (SIL).
  • SIL being run by boffins may appreciate the needs of breeders when they meet their ram clients, who have little or no knowledge of the SIL information and find the layout of data far too complex, but they don’t have staff to operate like Sheep and Beef Officers in every MAF district office.
  • No attempt has been made to change the layout of selection lists from the old Sheeplan days when it was designed in the 1970s.
  • As the physical look of a ram has always, and will always, reign supreme in the eyes of commercial sheep farmers, the need to explain the importance of the increasingly sophisticated data on the SIL Selection Lists has never been so important. 
  • There is far too much information being produced, and the SIL boffins can’t see this.  The more complex the data, the greater the urge for the ram buyers to escape to the sheep yards and eyeball the sheep.  This will never change as long as ram buyers are human!
  • The low profitability of sheep farming (which is advancing rapidly into the hard hill country due to dairy support) means that sheep farmers never hire a farm consultant to help with any management of breeding problems.
  • Technical help from Beef + Lamb NZ is sparse and non-specialised and refer any technical breeding questions to SIL.  Having information ‘on a website’ or calling a 0800 number to leave a message is pathetic. 
  • Stud breeding in New Zealand is a ‘sunset’ business; in fact the sun has probably already set.  Of all the commercial sheep farmers still in serious business, probably only 40% bother to take any real interest in selecting rams using SIL to make genetic improvement in their flocks.  The rest now buy rams to get their ewes pregnant and this is where the ‘composites’ fit in so easily. 
  •  Farmers are open to advertising hype like never before, where ‘composites’ and ‘stabilised crossbreds’ with guaranteed long-lasting ‘hybrid vigour’ are advertised as an easy way to increased production, particularly more fertility which is assumed to be profit). 
  • Unlike in the past, there is no independent organisation like the MAF Research and Advisory services to test these claims. It looks as if any younger farmers carrying on sheep farming are more prone to advertising hype than the current country farmers (average age 60+) who cannot afford to leave the farm unless a dairy grazier turns up at the gate with open cheque book.
  • Stud sheep breeding and genetic improvement of the national flock is in a parlous state, and nobody seems to be even interested or capable of doing anything about it.  

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