February 5, 2014

No 2. Sheep Performance Recording in New Zealand. History - Sheeplan and extension

By Dr Clive Dalton

Sheeplan objectives – objectives set by LITAC
·      The scheme must show genetic and economic gain.
·      The recording materials must be simple and clear.
·      The scheme must be backed by effective advice.
·      Rapid data turnaround is vital.
·      Follow up advice is essential.
·      Records must be understood by ram buyers.
·      The scheme must be flexible.

FAO Study Groups
These objectives led to the decision to ask MAF Farm Advisory Officers to form ‘Study Groups’ to examine three separate aspects of – Servicing, Promotion and Technical Detail and report back to the Sheeplan Technical Working Group, set up in 1974.

Sheeplan technical working group
The members were:
·      Clive Dalton – MAF Research Division
·      Clare Callow – MAF Farm Advisory Division
·      Prof Al Rae – Massey University
·      Dr Neil Clarke – MAF Research Division
·      Dr David Johnson - MAF Research Division
·      Helen Odea – MAF Head Office statistician and programmer
·      Bruce Binnie - MAF Farm Advisory Division
·      John Gunn – Breeders’ rep
·      Duncan Ensor – Breeders’ rep.

I sort of chaired this group, but we never seemed to need a formal chairman, and rather than keeping full minutes I made sure at the end of each meeting that the appropriate folk went away with a ‘job list’ to report back before our next gathering.  Clare Callow and I had plenty of time to double check this list of who was going to do what, during our frequent airport delays, and our Focker Friendship flights back to Hamilton.

Danger of Wellington buses
Helen Odea in 2014
Clare and I got very worried after our meetings, realising that MAF’s Helen Odea and Jean Miller had done so much on computer programming, that if either of them were run over by a Wellington bus, we would be in a real pickle, as so much information was in their heads and not safely documented. 

Helen constantly responded to requests to tweak things in the computer programme to meet new ideas and suggestions that kept flowing in from breeders.  She did eventually get round to documenting the programme details, driven by the need for when others followed her like Russell Delahunty.

Too many ideas
I also started worrying about getting bogged down with too many ideas coming from the very top breeders, who never seemed to crave for less paper outputs, and always had ideas about another way to present information to be useful by them and then their ram clients.  At times I wished we had never asked for more ideas!

So the amount of paper output seemed to balloon, and I was very conscious of farmers who hated paper, and only looked at the records after their clients had picked their rams, to make sure they had got the good ones on paper! 

I used to buy rams from breeders for my Breed Comparison trial at Whatawhata, and remember going to one Perendale breeder, and when we had the rams in the crush to look over, he brought out the unopened envelope from the house containing the Selection Lists from Wellington, and asked me to open it and have a look at the records!  He said he hadn’t had time to look at them yet!  As he was in the middle of his ram selling and I wasn’t the first client, it was clear that any other client had not been bothered about inspecting the records

Stock agents

I had sleepless nights thinking about stock agents knowing how they operated, taking their clients hundred of miles in their cars to ‘pick the rams’ from traditional ram breeding areas like around Feilding in the Manawatu and in the Wairarapa – ‘Ram Alley’ as we used to call it.  The last thing they wanted was to be held up by having to spend hours looking at Ram Selection Lists with over 20 columns of figures on them, when they could be in the kitchen telling yarns and sinking a few beers or finishing off that bottle of Scotch.

But one veteran Waikato stock agent, Rod Harper was brilliant, as he’d been a stud breeder for many years, and I used Rod often for his wisdom and experience to deal with the technicalities and psychology of ram buyers.  

 He taught us a lot about how to use records with clients, especially what was ‘need to know’ and what was ‘nice to know’ for them, and I used this a lot in our Sheeplan extension.

Training days for breeders
We tried hard to get the new computer outputs designed for easy comprehension, but it was a battle, which I doubt was ever won - even to this day.  It meant a lot of work for me, especially in cooperation with our MAF Sheep and Beef Officers, as there was a lot of genetic theory that had to be explained behind the figures for breeders and their ram clients before turning to the output sheets.

Breeding Values (BVs)
The biggest problem without doubt, was how to present Breeding Values so that breeders and their clients (and stock agents) could understand what they all meant.  As the base for comparison was always zero, rams below the base always had a negative BV, and those above had a positive BV.  It seemed to us boffins that nothing could be clearer.

But then we had totally underestimated the impact of that negative sign on the human brain, which seemed to be programmed to assume that all things negative could only be bad, and no explanation would change that.  The outcome was that all rams with negative BVs would be harder to sell than the positive ones.

What we could never get through was that the rams on offer were already a highly selected group from the total number of ram lambs born, so a negative BV in this top group of sale rams was still an excellent genetic prospect for a commercial breeder’s flock.  Those negative figures presented as small decimal values were always suspect, and the fact that the BV was hard to imagine on the sheep as kg of wool or live weight, or actual number of lambs, made things even harder for ram buyers. 

Hide the negatives
Suggestions were made to use 100 as a base instead of zero, so all rams with negative BVs would be below 100, which looked a lot better than when they carried a nasty negative. I can’t remember the final outcome of this but I think we ignored it – and hoped that over time, education would save the day. I suspect it didn’t and that it’s still a problem today with some ram buyers.

I’m fairly sure Beefplan has the same problem one they developed EBVs – Estimated Breeding Values.  The word ‘estimated’ was a good move as it made it clear that BVs could not be seen on an animal but they were only an ‘estimate’ of how good that animal would be ‘as a parent’ of the next generation.

The problem is we are human, and admitting that we don’t understand something, which is supposed to be simple, is always risky.  So we just carry on making the sort of noises that give the impression that we fully understand – and the longer we carry on giving this impression, our confusion gets worse.  You have to be a brave person when in a group discussion to holler – ‘hang on a minute, please explain. This sounds like bullshit’!

Where were a ram’s BVs 

Rams at sale. Does anybody want to know their BVs?

To try to reduce the mystery of BVs, at one Ruakura Farmers’ Conference to support my talk on Sheeplan, I remember making a cut out ram from the picture of the primitive looking Merino ram we used as the Sheeplan logo (goodness knows who chose that). 

I made it with MDF to run on wheels, which at the appropriate moment in my talk, I got a mate to pull a string so it arrived on the stage in the Farmers’ Hall.  Again at the appropriate moment, I got another mate on the other side of the stage to pull a string which released his testicles to swing, and on which I had written BV in large print, in an attempt to show that ‘visual appraisal’ was no use to find a ram’s BV – it was in his genes!  The ram was memorable even if the message was not!

How were the BVs put together to make the Index?

  Trying to explain this was where a lot of fun started, and Bruce Binnie and I made a series of acetate overlays for the Overhead Projector which was our main extension tool in those days.  If you took it quietly it seemed to work well - at lest we thought it did!

Photo:  The late Bruce Binnie. Bruce was one of MAF's top specialist Animal Husbandry Farm Advisory Officers,  and after years in the South Island, he was asked to move to Ruakura to join the Genetics Section at Ruakura where he did sterling research and extension work.  He was especially involved in Sheeplan and Sheepac (selling the exotic sheep breeds after their importation and quarantine.)

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