April 23, 2014

New Zealand agricultural history. No 27. Importing exotic sheep breeds

Breeds that survived after the importations
Texel; Finn; East Friesian

 By Dr Clive Dalton

The Texel
Texel ram in UK.  Photo: Don Clegg
 The Texel always looked a good prospect because of its meat, and when the world discovered the breed, it was in great demand, especially in UK were stud rams make unbelievable money (e.g 23,000 guineas), and rams have been so further selected on phenotype for meat conformation, that they are starting to look more like pigs with wool on!

The Rams are certainly a challenge for shearers when trying to bend their necks to tip them over. It's often a two-man job to tip large rams today with quite a bit of concern over health and safety of shearers.
The Texel has without doubt been the most successful of all imported breeds in New Zealand because of its meat conformation and lean carcass, and its main use now as a purebred is as a terminal sire, and as a 1/4 or 3/8 proportion in composites. The breed has garnered more hype than the other meat breed in New Zealand, although judging by ram sales at for example the Frankton Ram Fair in 2014, no Texels were on offer.  The main meat sire breeds sold were Poll Dorset and Suffolk.

But in terms of ‘efficiency’ of meat production efficiency (i.e. feed in and meat out), I reckon today’s Poll Dorset, Suffolk, South Suffolk, Southdown and Hampshire would be as good.  To test this we would need to resurrect the ghosts of the late Drs Alan Kirton and Barry Butler-Hogg, our revered meat scientists from Ruakura! Sadly there’s nobody around to do this sort of basic research any more, but it would be valuable to know how they all compare to sort out fact from advertising hype. 

The Texel also played a part in the drive to increase bulk in wool, thanks to its Cheviot genes which it acquired way back in its Dutch history.  In producing 'Growbulk' sheep, Dr Rowland Sumner at the Whatawhata Hill Country Research Station put Poll Dorset (as they had high-bulk wool), Texel and Romney together.  But Roland says the way the NZ clip has gone in recent times, the Texel has no special merit for bulk any more, as most coarse wools can meet the bulk specifications for the market.

The Finn
By the 1980s, the national lambing percentage had been given a dramatic a boost, and the Finn was given all the credit for this. 

There’s no doubt they had a major role with the and got major media coverage with their big visual impact of large litters of lambs from the purebreds (see picture at left). Supporters of the breed always point this out. 

But  most composites or 'stableised crossbreds' today have no more than a quarter Finn in them to restrict litter size to manageable levels for NZ.

The purebred Finn is said to have shown  a natural resistance to Facial Eczema which surprised everyone.  It was suggested that having evolved in a tough environment, they must have developed good immunity against toxins in general. This seems a bit stretched when it comes to FE as they have evolved as a housed breed for half of each year.

Coopworth breeder Edward Dinger who has selected for FE tolerance on MAF's Ramguard programme for 30 years, and who as a member of a group purchased 45 pure Finn rams at $1000 each, and farmed them successfully till FE hit.  He estimates the Finn tolerance is 'useful but low', and equivalent to a tolerance of about 0.3mg sporedesmin/kg live weight, when today's breeders have  sheep up to 0.6mg sporedesmin/kg live weight.

So the general statement that 'Finns show FE tolerance' may be true, but it's very dangerous if breeders selling them are not testing for FE on the Ramguard programme, and they don't state at what level of sporidesmin dosing the the rams have been tested.

Below are examples of 'general statements' which may be acceptable as 'advertising' but not as proven, tested and documented information in my view.

Robin Hilson in his 'One Stop Ram Shop' International Newsletter No 97, October 2013 makes the following claims regarding the Finn with the heading that ' All NZ ewes need a dash of Finn'!  These are the stated reasons:
Finn X ewes don't have bearings (except old ones)

Finn X ewes have some natural resistance to FE

Finn X ewes don't need flushing

Finn X ewes perform predictably

Finn X ewes produce few triplets

Finn X ewes carcasses yield well

Finn X ewes multiple suckle lambs

Finn is the most used sheep breed in the world

Robin describes the Finn as a browser rather than a grazing sheep, with 'excellent survival, longevity and productive repeatable performance'.  He also claims in 'One Stop Ram Shop' International Newsletter No 96, June 2013' that 'Finns, Texels, East Friesian crossbreeds make up 40% of the national flock and soon to be 50%'.  

I have had comments from other sheep breeders that a couple of these statements are true, two others are half true, and the rest are total advertising hype.

The East Friesian 
It’s interesting why all the hype associated with this breed, that there are not flocks of thousands of them throughout the country.
Why was their great potential for both fertility and milk production never fully exploited?  Their large body size  could also have boosted meat production, even if their wool potential was limited.   
But its effect as a purebred on the national flock is hardly measurable today, and there are no large commercial flocks of purebreds around 

Photo (left): East Friesian ewes from Jock Allison.

One commentator told me that the East Friesians in the first importation from a flock in UK seemed to be a fairly robust sheep and had seen a fair bit of pasture and fresh air. This contrasted greatly with the sheep brought in from Sweden by Dr Jock Allison, which had evolved in housed conditions for half of their lives, and were not robust enough as purebreds for NZ farming outdoor pasture conditions.  This I think is very fair comment.

John Dobbie who managed a flock of EF halfbreds commercially in the central North Island said that unless ewes were being sucked dry by twins or triplets, they had too much milk and  had big problems with mastitis.  Even 180% lambing was not high enough to milk them out, and avoid udder and mastitis problems he reckoned.  

John found that the EF component in a composite needed to be no higher than a  quarter  for most farming conditions. It's interesting that no composites on the market have any EF genes in them now.  Their most outstanding feature John says was their wonderfully quiet temperament.  They were great sheep to work with.

It was always too long a shot to expect the breed to lead a national surge into  dairy production, and even now where sheep are milked, the Poll Dorset and even Coopworths are used.  So the  contribution of the East Friesian to the New Zealand sheep industry, with an animal  before arrival was considered to have so much promise, has been hardly measurable. 

Five East Friesian breeders are listed with the NZ Sheep Breeders’ Association and three  breeders are in the Rare Breeds Conservation Society of NZ.

John Dobbie ONZM
But John Dobbie also makes a very important point, which is that when these new breeds came on stream, all the old Farm Advisory Officers like him had been morphed into ‘consultants’, and there’s no doubt that charging for advice’ killed their jobs.  

John reckons the East Friesian probably suffered most from this neglect of advisory support, as farmers didn’t get the hands-on experience to help them find the right niche  for the breed.

Free independent advice disappeared, and what was worse, these new consultants were 'pushing product' to claim 10% commission on sales, and even compete for the highest sales prize!  Totally stupid!

At the same time, the MAFTech research division was being gutted, so again there was no on-farm research being done which could have helped find the proper niche for the East Friesian, or to do some genetic work to select them for New Zealand outdoor pastoral conditions.

So the question remains - where are all the East Friesians these days after all the cost of bringing them in?

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