Sunday, November 10, 2013

Genetics Merger- beef and lamb etc

I have been reading the various promo articles (and in particular the recent one in the Farmers weekly of 28 October by Gerard Hall) as to why the proposed merger of Ovita, SIL (sheep improvement Limited) and Beef and Lamb should go ahead and I have also attended a coupler road show meetings on it.

 Let me say at the outset that I do support such a merger.  However I do think the various advocates of this merger tend to significantly overstate not only its significance in the development of the sheep industry to date, but also I think its contribution to it in the future.  An example of such a statement:

 The above entities are “the glue that holds together sheep genetics research and development in NZ and supports industry improvement.  These are the key ingredients in the profitability and competitive positioning of sheep and beef farming”

 The claim is made that for a $100 lamb SIL has been responsible for contributing an extra $14 more profit compared to the animals 20 years ago.  I am not saying the SIL hasn’t contributed something or been used as one of many tools to get there, but in my view the introduction of composites containing breeds of Fin etc with the resulting high lambing percentages made all other breeds focus on fertility to the point now for example the Romney breed, which is still the dominant breed in NZ, their lambing percentages and in particular number of lambs to  weaning (i.e. high survivability rates)  must be well in excess of $14 per lamb more than 20 years ago.

 People need to remember that genetics are one component of sheep farming, I would suggest it contributes around 10%, others (i.e. beef and lamb) may argue around 20%.    The balance, 80 to 90% is stockmanship, which is not only knowing what a good sheep looks like, but includes how you manage your stock, which in turn includes a basic judgment as to when you should shift them through to what pasture species, farming systems, fencing etc, all these things as a sheep or beef farmer you hone to try and maximum production out of your stock.  You assess the value of what you do by how your animals perform; it is your subjective assessment that makes the difference! 

 I believe it is the stockmanship aspect that is increasingly becoming a lost skill and accordingly as much attention, if not more, than the smaller genetic component, needs to be put on this to educate all of us and in particular those who we hope to continue with the industry into the future.  Ideally such education needs to be taught in tandem with SIL and sheep genomics etc and taught in high schools and Universities.    Some basic examples of what I mean;

·         I use a rough tool to measure dry matter in a paddock to determine how big a break I need to feed x amount of ewes or hoggets, but whatever the figure I get its only a really rough guide, if the weather is warm your stock need less, if its wet and cold they need more, if its been very wet for a while they need a bigger break still, these are judgements you should make every day.  The drymatter measurement tool is useful guide but ultimately the important judgement is the daily assessment of your stock; and

·         Making an assessment as to how subdivide your farm, a fence in the right place can make a huge difference to the utilisation of the pasture, i.e. if it’s a shady area or wet area etc.   I consider this a stockmanship assessment that has major impact on your production; and

·         An assessment of an animal’s structure, i.e. the phenotypic look of the animal is something that impacts on productivity down the track.   Simplistically an overshot or undershot sheep can’t eat enough to perform.    Dark skin, black spots on ears and face will ultimately affect productivity as not culling for it will mean that the black becomes so prevalent that you end up with inferior wool with loads of black in it.  Poor shoulder conformation if not culled for will have a significant effect on ease of lambing in future generations; this being one of my concerns about Alliance’s Viascan yield assessment, you need a good shoulder to get the premium but this maybe at the expense of lambing ease in future generations of sheep.  I could go on for ages about the various phenotypic traits of an animal and how if not culled for will ultimately affect the productivity of the flock in the future.

 There are loads more examples because it obviously comprises 90% of what we do.  Objective measurements or breeding values from SIL or indeed sheep genomic chips don’t or at best provide us with a rough guide on these decisions.

 The same article mentioned above talks about Shepherd plus, Sheep 50K, Sheep 5k etc.  I like many ram breeders provide DNA samples from sires to the present entity and presumably to the future entity to develop gene markers and refine the present ones so the accuracy of these tests can be significantly higher, but one of the major stumbling blocks to the use of them is cost and accuracy.  I would argue that unless you are an entity subsidised by the rest of us, then any breeder who utilises such tests on the scale advocated would, based on a cost benefit analysis, simply disregard the use of them.  Some presently use such science more as a marketing tool than as mechanism to improve their genetics.    Take the Shepherd plus, I can’t remember the exact pricing for this, but the cost to simply sort out sire parentage (let alone sire and dam) is ridiculous and, if you are good breeder, you still have to record and identify the mother in the normal manner, so what’s the point!!!!  Two things need to happen before such science can truly contribute to the development of the industry; the accuracy needs to continually climb and the cost of utilising such tests needs to keep coming down, there will be a point that it makes economic sense, but I am pretty sure we are not there yet.

 As stated above I am not against the merger and the continuing development into genetic markers etc, but I do believe that it’s not the panacea as some people seem to be portraying it in the media.   I do believe it can contribute, but as much emphasis needs to be placed on educating all of us on what I consider the basics of stockmanship, it’s a vital aspect of being a good farmer that can never be replaced by one or many objective tests, it is an art that needs to be learnt and as such it’s the new entity’s responsibility to also ensure that this aspect is also taught in high schools, universities and any other forum (i.e. field days) that farmers may attend or more importantly those who will be farmers of the future.