April 23, 2014

New Zealand agricultural history. No 31. Importing exotic sheep breeds

The forgotten facts 
The future of sheep improvement

By Dr Clive Dalton

The forgotten facts
What really annoys me in all the discussion about how wonderful the importation of the exotic sheep breed was for the national sheep flock, is the lack of recognition of what was going on with sheep genetic improvement in New Zealand at the time of the exotic importations.

There was a tsunami of change  racing ahead after all the years of work in the National Flock Recording Scheme (NFRS) starting in the 1960s, and then updated into Sheeplan starting in the 1970s. (See my blogs on Sheeplan).

The changes that were taking place were massive, but nobody hyped up about importing new breeds must have stopped to ask a basic questions – ‘hang on a minute, before we get involved in all these importation shenanigans, let’s check what our current breeds and breeders are doing, where they are at, and where are they going?  

By the 1970s when I got involved with Sheeplan, a breeding revolution was going on under our noses, and sheep improvement was going into orbit.  Here are my ten good reasons why we didn’t need the exotic breeds:

Coopworths  -plenty of fertility 
         The Coopworth was the major force in improving fertility through their breed society rules insisting that breeders must use their top index rams in their own flocks.  Coopworths were being farmed the length of New Zealand and proved that they could handle hill country as well as the better country, so we knew what they were capable of. (Many Coopworth breeders have told me that it was a big mistake when the breed society allowed up to ¼ exotic genes to be included, and still call it a Coopworth. 

      The Romney was starting to change at break neck speed too, as stud breeders had driven the breed association into registering high performance commercial ewes in their flocks. 

         The ‘easy-care’ breeding policy drove out all the old short-legged, wool-blind 90% lambing sheep that needed full-time shepherding.  
      The photo shows Piquet Hill easy-care, high-performance Romneys that have also been selected for 30 years for Facial Eczema resistance.

      The Perendale was making massive gains in fertility, meat and wool from hard hill country where the old Romney couldn’t cope. They were on the 'fast track' of developing into a 'breed' to be established and improved through the National Flock Recording Scheme (NFRS) and Sheeplan, long before any exotic breeds were considered. 

T   There would be very few Perendale breeders who ever got involved with the exotics as they saw them as having little or no contribution to make on hard hill country.

5.     Group Breeding Schemes (GBS), which started in the 1960s, blew the roof off all the old concepts of ‘stud’ breeding and registration of sheep based solely on pedigree.  The performance levels of the sheep in the GBS nucleus flocks for all the commercially important traits needed by NZ farmers were unbelievable, and would have equaled and surpassed the exotics.  And these were NZ-bred sheep and were being rapidly fed through hundreds of thousands of commercial sheep flocks throughout New Zealand.

6.     The meat breeds were changing at an unbelievable rate.  The Poll Dorset and Suffolk led the charge as they were increasing in popularity, but the traditional Southdown and its mixtures (e.g. South Suffolk) was another visual revolution.  Meat production was racing ahead.

7.     We had the old Wallace fertility flock at Ruakura, the Invermay high fertility flock which had enormous potential, the Booroola from CSIRO in Australia and if we’d done more searching among farmers’ flocks, we would have found sheep clearly with big genes for fertility like the Wards at Raglan. These could have been sampled, multiplied and commercialised, as they didn’t have all the things the Finn brought that we didn’t want!

8.     Better feeding and management driven by the world’s best MAF advisory service allowed all these superior genes to be expressed and measured in bank balances.  The hills were growing pastures they’d never seen before.

9.     Hogget mating was a viable option as nutrition had improved. The lack of fertility or growth genes never restricted it.

1     AI and ET technology was well advanced as the exotic importations had proved.

1   We had plenty of fertility, plenty of growth and plenty of good wool in the sheep we knew that suited the country’s long established and evolving markets.  And improvement was on the move on ‘fast track’! (See my blogs on Sheeplan).

       Dalton and Horton conclusions - the future of sheep improvement?  
       Myformer 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 charging for their services became the order of the day.  It was a disaster but the bureaucrats called ‘progress’!

    Our 2014 conclusions:

      1. 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.
2    2. 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.
3    3. 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).
4    4. 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.
5     5. No attempt has been made to change the layout of selection lists from the old Sheeplan days when it was designed in the 1970s.
6    6. 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.
7    7. 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!
8    8. 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.
9    9. 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.
1      10 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.
1   11. 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).  
1    12. 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.
1   13. 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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