April 23, 2014

New Zealand agricultural history. No 32. Importing exotic sheep breeds

My final shots 
Why didn’t MAF check?
Ask today’s sheep farmers 
My last call 

By Dr Clive Dalton

My final shots 
It was not the threat of the exotic breed importation that drove the changes in New Zealand sheep from the 1970s and beyond.  This is a standard old chestnut by those who lauded and still do, the exotic sheep importations.  What the exotics did so well was to draw massive attention to sheep performance, and successfully drew attention away from our NZ sheep breeds, which were well on the way to providing the genetics New Zealand farmers needed - at a slow but steady pace. 

BUT - the genetic gains in the basic breeds were not promoted by breed organisations, many of whom were still in the old 'stud' thinking, and didn't know what promotion and marketing was all about.  The exotic importation undoubtedly gave sheep genetics a massive boost of interest,  and much is still going on by those selling sheep with exotic genes in them.

Genetic progress in New Zealand flocks was going on long before the exotic importations were proposed, but the genetic gain per year was not massive - varying from 0.1 to 0.6% per year, so it didn't hit ram buyers in they eye when they went to inspect the rams up for sale. 

This this genetic gain didn't stand out like the crosses of the exotic breeds did, especially in the First Cross (F1s) which  could give 2-3% gains/year from some initial hybrid vigour.

The exotics had a massive 'visual impact' which as anyone in sheep recording knows, has a far bigger impact than columns of hard data on SIL selection lists!

And the exotic breeds seemed to get all the hype in the farming media, as they had big ‘news’ impact.  And the sheep today currently being marketed as 'stableised crossbreds' from the initial exotic imports look good, when accompanied with general vague promotional terms.

What I will never understand though, is why so many MAF folk in positions of responsibility for the public purse, got so hyped up over the importations. Was it the word ‘exotic’ that got to them? Why did they assume that our NZ breeds were ‘stuffed’ to need this boost mainly of fertility?   

Didn’t they know or want to hear about what was going in as a result of Sheeplan and Group Breeding Schemes?  It was as if the exotic sheep were seen as a ‘new toy’ for folk who hadn’t bothered to learn how to make their old one work properly! It’s an old mistake that is still being made in today’s highly disposable world!

I often wonder if it was the prospect of overseas trips at MAF's expense that coloured a lot of what should have been cold hard reasoning based on financial budgets.  I know that Dr Alan Carter was a master at organising overseas trips for himself, and made sure that before he was heading home again, he always had an official invitation for another one in his pocket.

Imagine today's social media getting hols of this picture and circulating it world wide! What would it do to our 'clean, green and humane' image?

And we wouldn’t have had all that slaughter of livestock, which would have been a national public relations disaster of mega proportions if today’s social media had got wind of it.  Thankfully, I can’t remember any photos of the burning and burials at Mana and Crater ever getting into the papers or on TV.

The media were different in those days as there were responsible agricultural journalists and farming editors around who had some status.  Not today I'm afraid.

Can you imagine how the disaster would have been handled today?  It would have been around the world in nano seconds and been a lot worse than finding false botulism on our markets!

I was involved as MAFQual Information Coordinator in the Canterbury snow crisis in 1999, and the BBC phoned me immediately wanting pictures of the hundreds of dead lambs being pushed into the big hole after a storm, and were asking if it would affect the price of lamb in UK. Today’s social media would go ballistic on any issue where blood and death were involved.

Why didn’t MAF check?
Who I wonder did a full economic analysis of the short-term and long-term economic cost/benefits of the proposal, including the ‘unintended consequences’. Clearly, nobody did! 

 If the money and technology put into the exotic importations had been put into getting the known sheep research out to farmers in the 1970s and 1980s, the long-term economic benefits to New Zealand could have been achieved ten times over, if not more than from the exotic imports. That's my view of course which can never be proved now.

The MAF Research Division had a brilliant economist Dr Grant Scobie on the staff at Ruakura about that time, and I remember he did a famous analysis which showed that investment in agricultural research yielded about 80% return on investment, BUT, there was a 10-12 year lag in seeing this come through into the economy. 

Why didn’t the MAF Head Office bureaucrats get Scobie to run his ruler over the cost/benefits of a sheep importation – to check whether all the push from the geneticists was based on facts or over indulgence!  Grant is now a Principal Adviser at the New Zealand Treasury so he knows his onions! He would have been the very man to do an honest analysis.

Hard North Island hills where all our sheep will be found in future. 
 Survival without water will be an essential sheep trait if the climate keeps changing.

Ask today’s sheep farmers
If you don’t agree with my blogged views, just ask any of the current and shrinking number of hill country sheep farmers with average age of 60+, and having to farm the harder country as 'dairy support' has taken up the lower ground.  Dairy support may provides regular income, which is rare in sheep farming, but graziers are going to discover that they need to grow more feed, use more fertiliser and provide reticulated water.

And if a younger generation takes over farming the hills, they'll certainly not put up with the hard yakka for little profit of the past generations. There's easier and more profitable things they can do with their capital. 

My last call
The question I'd like to ask, and see some hard researched data and not just advertising hype, is  this.   
How have the  genes from imported exotic sheep currently helped farmers to make more PROFIT. I don't mean more PRODUCTION, or that weasel word 'PRODUCTIVITY' - but good clean profit that can be spent at the supermarket and return on capital investment in the bank?   Are farmers really achieving more with the composites or stableised crossbreeds than with the modern basic straight breeds?

And the most important issue of all, have they provided less physical work in yards and woolsheds, and less worry as a result of the exotic breed importations?  This is the acid test in my view.  

In the old days when MAF  had a Research Division and teams of scientists who were in constant touch with farmers, we could  have found answers to these questions. Sadly there's no hope of getting answers to anything in today's research climate. So in the meantime, we are in the hands of unsubstantiated advertising claims - which sadly is the way of the modern world.

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