February 5, 2014

No 11. Sheep Performance Recording in New Zealand. History - Wool

By Dr Clive Dalton

 Fleece weight and wool quality
Fleece weight was always an important trait for Sheeplan breeders in the days when wool was worth improving. Today it’s a different story, although it cannot be totally ignored – and there’s always somebody talking up a great future for wool. Farmers have heard this talk for the last 40 years!

Recording in the woolshed
Hogget fleece weight (HFW) was the key trait for Sheeplan breeders to record as it was a good indication of lifetime wool production (i.e. it had high repeatability) and was regularly passed on to future generations (i.e. it had high heritability. 

HFW was also easy to measure, as all you needed was a set of scales and a tray to hold the wool. Many breeders used banana boxes to hold fleeces while waiting to be weighed. Nothing could be simpler  - and another simple and cheap idea from somebody which we publicised in MAF publications.

If you needed to record more data on the fleece like staple length, soundness etc, you could grab a mid-side sample from the fleece on the floor or the person on the wool table could take one. With fine-wooled flocks more data were collected by the shed wool classer.

Breeders soon developed slick routines to weigh wool, and shearers were most cooperative to allow the brass tag to be read (usually for a higher pay rate), when opening up the belly.  This was why we always recommended that sheep should be tagged in the left ear (which stuck out behind the shearer’s left arm), as most shearers were right handed.

Our technicians at Whatawhata and at other MAF research stations were always coming up with improvements, and I was always keen to use our MAF Flock & Herd magazine to publish these, and ideas that Sheep and Beef officers had seen in their own areas.  Bram Uljee was a master at developing new tricks, which we tried out at Whatawhata and improved on where possible.  Along with my technician David Hall we can claim one invention – the shearing lectern!

The shearing lectern
The Dalton/Hall lectern - 40 years old!
We had a slick wool shed operation at Whatawhata with no time to daydream or yak.  It started with first reading the brass tag in the sheep’s left (nearside) ear as soon as the shearer started on the belly, and the ear stuck out behind the shearer’s left upper arm. If you missed this opportunity to read the tag, the only other option was to read it on the last side, as the sheep’s head was ready to go down the porthole, which was not a good choice.

It was best if you could read the tag (in the sheep’s left ear) without having to touch it and certainly not to pull the tag clear, as an extra jump by the sheep was not appreciated by the shearer. 
After the tag was read, the number went on a ticket, which you then kept, usually between your lips while you swept the board with the broom or rake.  You then had to find a place for your pencil (ballpoints were no good with the wool grease) and I envied our staff who could hold a pencil behind their ears – I couldn’t!

After the last blow you first put the broom down quietly on the floor (dropping it near the shearer’s left ear at your peril), picked up the fleece, belly and pieces to put on the scales with the ticket on top. By this time, the shearer had the next sheep on the board and it was rapid fire again.

It was the job of another staff member to write the fleece weight on the ticket, which then sat it on the fleece before being given to the records technician on the way to be thrown on the table.  If the table was wooled up, the fleece was put in a queue on the floor.

 The record’s technician filled in the large data sheets, which went to Ruakura and via punched cards disappeared into the maw of the computer which at that time filled a whole wing of the main tower block.  You can get this power today in a laptop!

The record’s technician had to be wide-awake all the time, with the main problem being mis-read tags and duplicated numbers.  While reading the tag, it paid you to say the number out aloud, to keep eye and brain in sync.  Anybody who we discovered had a touch of dyslexia was banished from tag reading.

This circus got to the stage where David Hall and I were sick of shearers’ expletives from falling brooms, holding dirty paper tickets in our mouths, using our knees as writing desks, and finding places to hold greasy pencils.  A wee lectern was the obvious solution.

David and I did a sketch and took it to Neil Wood our station engineer and invention genius, and Neil mocked up a prototype which worked like a charm from the word go.  The lectern held the tickets, the pencil hung on a string, and that broom had a special clip all to itself on the side - all in one place and saving a extra bending.

The design was a joint venture we seem to remember, but I insisted on having my name alone on the side clip for the blardy broom! I could never resist giving mock blessings from the lectern to stir things up, and enjoying the shearers’ unprintable responses.

Technology has thankfully moved on, and breeders today have a massive range of electronic wizardry to record fleece weigh, if indeed it’s worth bothering about.  All this was all 40 years ago, so you can imagine the thrill I got when at a recent Whatawhata Field Day in the woolshed I saw our four now rusting lecterns still there.  I had to set one up for an historic photo. But I somehow resisted giving the crowd a blessing!

Fleece weight from liveweight
The other way you could select for fleece weight in Sheeplan was through liveweight, as if you kept on breeding heavier hoggets, you’d end up with sheep that produced more wool because of the high phenotypic and genetic correlation between fleece weight and body weight.

So all you needed a set of scales, which in those days were a crate to hold the sheep suspended on a spring balance.  These were ugly noisy contraptions with doors banging just at the moment the tag reader called out the number. We tied bits of old bicycle tube on the gates to deaden the noise.  You could never wait till the scale pointer came to rest so took the middle reading of the pointer’s vibrations.

A company called ‘Donalds’ made both sheep and cattle scales where the weight forced a liquid up a tube on a scale, and we used them for a while before the wonderful arrival of the first electronics.

So right from the start, through our MAF publications we encouraged commercial sheep farmers to put their top Sheeplan rams over their hoggets that had high fleece weights.  This was a challenge as commercial sheep farmers hadn’t tagged sheep before or weighed wool.  But good ideas seemed to emerge – and it’s a pity now we can’t remember where they came from – like the one below.

The cardboard computer

Somebody came up with the idea of a two-piece waterproof label on a bit of elastic to go around a sheep’s neck, and a cardboard box with 20-25 divisions inside to put the labels in.  The labels were called Tallitags and Allflex sold them, and we can’t remember who sold the boxes – maybe the same company.

Picture from Bram Uljee's book showing the wool on the scales, then the Talitag being put into the appropriate hole in the box, then the box at the end with raised lid showing the distribution of the fleece weight tags.

This was the basic routine:
1.     Decide on the range of fleece weights in the mob in 100g steps, and mark these weights on the holes in the box lid, starting with highest in the top left hole. The box had a hinged lid to indicate the front and to avoid errors incase it got turned around.
2.     Just before each shorn hogget goes down the hole, stretch the Tallitag on its elastic cord around the sheep’s neck, tearing off one half to go with the fleece on the scales. 
3.     The other half stays on the hogget and will be legible for at least 10 days.
4.     After weighing the fleece, write the weight on the tag (as a double check) and post it through the appropriate hole of the box. 
5.     At the end of shearing, opening the lid reveals the range in fleece weights in the mob.  
6.     Work out how many hoggets you need to keep, and work back down through the compartments with the declining weights until you have the number you want. 
7.     On a nice dry day, bring the hoggets back in, and put a permanent brass tag in the keepers and mark the rest as culls.

This was such a great way to introduce ‘population genetics’ to farmers through such a simple illustration of what a ‘normal distribution’ or ‘bell curve’ was – and most important of all, how to use this bit of applied statistics to improve the flock.

This simple box  full of Talitags showed farmers that most of the mob (two thirds) was around the average; the 1/6th culls at the bottom end, and then the special 1/6th hoggets at the top end of the distribution. These top sheep always looked a picture – so it wasn’t hard to get farmers to give them a permanent tag and call them ‘the elite group’ or a ‘nucleus group’.  Our SBOs went flat out to promote this concept, and that it was worth paying decent money for Sheeplan rams to put over these top hoggets to ensure rapid genetic gain.

The concern over the price of tags and the extra work in the woolshed and office suddenly faded away!
The simple Talitag to identify the hogget's fleece weight.
Photo from Bram Uljee's book

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