February 5, 2014

No 10. Sheep Performance Recording in New Zealand. History- high fertility flocks

By Dr Clive Dalton
 The hunt for high fertile sheep

The Ruapuke Ward flock           
We at Whatawhata heard about a Romney flock at Ruapuke near Raglan owned by the two Ward sisters (Olive and Jill), and I remember Graeme Hight visiting them to look at their sheep when we were starting up a small high fertility Romney flock on the station. Graeme and Doug Lang had got a small group of Romney twinning two-tooths from Lands & Survey to start this, and we were on the lookout for any other high fertility sheep around – that could handle hard hill country.

I remember Graeme coming back completely gobsmacked from the Wards. There were twins and triplets everywhere he said, and the Wards knew every sheep by name. They kept their own rams from their top ewes.  Jill still runs the flock, which still has staggering levels of fertility and is really a national genetic treasure.   But we couldn’t get our bosses interested in the Ward’s genetics – it was too simple a solution!
The Invermay high fertility flock
The MAF Invermay Research team of Drs Rob Kelly and Roger Lewer led by Dr Jock Allison did get the OK in 1978 to go hunting for fertile sheep for an on-going trial in cooperation with farmers aimed at increasing the numbers of lambs born (NLB)/ewe lambing (fecundity) to improve the NZ national flock.

The project started by advertising in the New Zealand Journal of Agriculture for Romney, Coopworth, and Perendale breeders (both stud and commercial) to let them know if they had any fertile ewes which had produced three sets of triplets in a row without any problems, and over two years the team got 85 sheep ewes.

Among these sheep was the old girl, which carried what was eventually called the Inverdale gene.  She had produced 33 lambs in 11 lambings and Jock said that Invermay geneticist Roger Lewer didn’t want her as she wasn’t from a ‘pure’ breed’ But the farmer threatened him to take her for the Invermay flock. 

Farmers were asked to find ewes that were the best in a their flock, on the basis of NLB/ewe lambing, and it was not possible at that time to make any comparisons between flocks to find which were the best flocks.  At this stage, this was not important, as after these top ewes in each flock went to Invermay into the same environment, then rough genetic differences could be made between the ewes. 

Farmers donated their ewes free of charge, and even free delivery if local.  They got the ram lambs from their contributed ewes bred by ET and natural mating, and the ewe lambs were kept for flock expansion. Embryo transfer work on these ewes was used to multiply the top individuals as at the time, this new concept broke new ground in NZ sheep breeding. 

In first year of operation, lambs born per donor ewe 326 achieved then mate donor ewe to rear own lambs. Farmers eventually got their donated ewe back too.

Rams were needed as flock sires, so farmers were asked to contribute any rams whose dams had shown consistent and high records of fecundity NLB/ewe lambing. These rams were mated to 5-10 ewes over short period so their collection and return fitted in with farmers’ own flock mating patterns. The plan was to stabilise the flock at around 300 ewes plus replacements.

Initially sheep were only collected from the South Island but it was intended to expand the project to the North Island too.  It would have been interesting to see what name was hatched up for the final result, as in those days the word ‘composite’ was not in the sheep farming vocab.

The major positives
There were so many major positives from this project:
  • The concept was so simple. It was obvious to all what the aims were, and how New Zealand sheep farmers were going to be the clear beneficiaries from the work.
  •  The cost was peanuts! The only cost to MAF was a bit of transport for some sheep and farming the few sheep involved and doing the ET was part of the ongoing research costs at Invermay, and operated by their current staff.
  •  The project got wide nation-wide interest from sheep farmers who then started to look for outstanding ewes in their flocks.  It had an appealing touch of Kiwi competition about it – to see who could get a ewe into the Invermay flock.
  • For MAF it was a marvelous bit of public relations that even Satchi & Satchi couldn’t have come up with! The government helping farmers when they needed help to boost production through lambing percentage – and the job was being done on a shoe-string when hill country farmers were doing it tough. 
  • But the really big point about the Invermay flock was that it was using good well-established New Zealand sheep breeds, with wool the market accepted and high fertility that could have easily been fed into the national flock at a steady rate with far less wastage.
Logic defied
But no – it was not to be.  In my view, I’m certain that the Director of Ag Research at the time (Dr John Hutton), who had spent his career as a Ruakura dairy nutritionist, probably knew very little about the Invermay flock (and sheep in general), as the flock didn’t get a lot of publicity in the farming press in the North Island. 

Without doubt it’s not difficult to see that the importation of ‘exotics’ had more ‘sex appeal’ to get more impact in a shorter time, and hence had greater attraction to the herd of bureaucrats, boffins and vets who saw great opportunities for travel to Europe and UK for a start, and with much more to follow. 

The cost of the booze bill alone for all those who traveled to Europe on some many occasions for the exotic importation circus, would have financed the entire Invermay project and purchased outright the Ward flock!

But there was no way that folk in this hyped up mood would ever have considered the long-term effects of the ‘law of unintended circumstances’, as it would never show up till long after they had passed on leaving the impact behind.

Off to the works
The Invermay flock eventually went to the works, and perhaps fortunately I’d better not name the Director who made the decision!  Fortunately out of this unique gathering of sheep from NZ farmers, two high fertility ‘big genes’ came out of the work, and Dr George Davis took up the search and identify work after Drs Kelly and Lewer finished.  One was named the ‘Inverdale’ gene and the other the ‘Wishart’ gene.

 The Booroola Merino
From Wikepedia
The Booroola Merino was started by Jack and Dick Seears of Booroola, Cooma using ewes from their Egelabra flock that gave multiple-births.  The Seears gave the CSIRO a quintuplet ram in 1958, another in 1959 and a sextuplet ewe in 1960. In 1958, the CSIRO purchased 12 ewes (triplets or quadruplets) and a ewe who had given birth to triplets. When the Booroola flock was dispersed in 1965, the CSIRO purchased 91 mixed-age multiple-born ewes and moved their Booroola flock from Deniliquin to Armidale.
My Director at Whatawhata Hill Country Research Station, Dr Doug Lang managed to get two rams from Dr Helen Newton-Turner who was the world-famous geneticist in CSIRO.  The rams arrived at Whatawhata and by that time our Merinos had died out due to the wet North Island climate, so we donated the rams to Invermay research station for work at the Tara Hills High Country Research station which was classical Merino country.

They had been selected for multiple births for many years  and when Dr Laurie Piper of CSIRO really looking into their genetics it was discovered this fertility was due to a 'major gene', which surprised everybody, as up till then, fertility was always assumed to have been the result of many genes.

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