The potential for New Zealand's primary sector is
significant but the industry must get better at how it takes
its products to markets, both individually and collectively,
New Zealand Merino Company chief executive John Brakenridge
tells Agribusiness reporter Sally Rae.
The New Zealand Merino Company is investing in production
science initiatives to unlock the potential of what it
describes as the perfect sheep. Photos from The New Zealand
Imagine New Zealand without sheep and without a sheep
That is a scenario New Zealand Merino Company chief executive
John Brakenridge poses.
A scenario that he says is "actually quite on the cards" if
the status quo continues.
Looking ahead 10 years, sheep farming, without commercial
intervention, "does not look flash at all".
Silere Alpine Origin merino ribs.
The crossbred industry was once again languishing and Mr
Brakenridge believed some industry-good leaders had "lulled
everybody" into a false sense of security, by saying China was
going to need protein.
"The world population did need protein but it did not
necessarily need New Zealand's, he said.
"The increase in poultry alone in the next two years, above
current production, is going to be equivalent of all sheep
meat produced in the world today.
"If we expect to be there, we've got to be far better at how
we take our products to market," he said.
Mr Brakenridge believed there was a future and potential for
a crossbred industry, "but they've got to stop talking about
structure and start doing things, and start concentrating on
scale and market connections".
But as well as imagining New Zealand without a sheep
industry, Mr Brakenridge also challenged people to think of a
highly profitable sheep industry, which attracted young
people to go farming.
One of the biggest challenges the primary sector faced was
talent and how to encourage young people to enter the
Collaboration was also crucial to the future success of the
sector. That had led Mr Brakenridge to champion a group of
more than 20 chief executives from New Zealand's leading and
emerging primary sector organisations, for a six-day "boot
camp" at the Stanford University campus in California, in
New Zealand's potential was significant with the way the way
the world was going, he said.
"It's beautifully positioned for it, but we've just got to
get better at how we take our products to market, both
individually and collectively", and that was the essence of
Some "rock stars" from Stanford's business faculty also gave
presentations and there were insights from some very
successful US businesses.
Jeremy Moon, founder of Icebreaker, gave a presentation on
the journey of his company. Icebreaker had done a "fantastic
job" and had been great for New Zealand's reputation. It had
become a New Zealand "icon", Mr Brakenridge said.
The group involved in the boot camp all identified some
actions back in August and they would be meeting again in
February to outline progress - what they had done and how
they were making a difference to their businesses.
More activity would be started in the next six to 12 months,
in terms of employment opportunities and collaboration.
From a commercial point of view, trying to do things
individually was going to become "harder and harder", Mr
An example of a successful partnership was NZ Merino teaming
up Silver Fern Farms with the Silere Alpine Origin Merino
meat initiative, which was proving very successful.
Unashamedly, at NZ Merino, they were building a business.
They wanted to build its economic success but they wanted to
make a difference for the stakeholders, most notably the
growers, he said.
NZ Merino was in a "unique position", as 70% of what it sold
was through contracts.
The commodity market could "crash and boom and bust" but,
under the NZ Merino model, it provided stability for both the
farmer and the end market.
There was "a whole lot of excitement" about what was
happening in the fibre side of the industry.
The active outdoors market continued to grow and there was
still "huge scope" for growth.
With assistance from the Government's Primary Growth
Partnership, NZ Merino has been investing in production
science initiatives to unlock the potential of "the perfect
sheep" - a sheep that was healthy, fertile and
high-producing, with high-quality meat and wool fit for
Leading the project is geneticist Dr Mark Ferguson, who
specialises in fine wool sheep and who has moved from Western
Australia to Christchurch to join NZ Merino.
Merino sheep had been managed and selected mostly to produce
wool for the past two centuries and remained relatively
unselected for meat and reproduction traits.
There was "enormous scope" to bring more balanced selection
and more strategic nutrition into the merino industry to
unlock its potential, Dr Ferguson said.
He will drive initiatives such as extending the geographic
range of fine wool sheep, facilitating the uptake of
estimated breeding values, providing robustness including
solutions to footrot, and facilitating the development of the
sheep that combined the optimum traits for productivity and
The latest molecular genetics technologies would be used to
build a new footrot genetic test and that test would also
check the animal's genotype for all production and health
"This technology means that a drop of blood collected from a
lamb's ear at birth could be used to not only predict the
likelihood of that lamb contracting footrot, but also to
predict how much and what quality wool it will cut as an
adult, how fast it will grow, its likelihood of getting a
worm burden, and dozens of other traits, including what the
consumer's eating experience will be when that lamb hits the
plate," Dr Ferguson said.
Mr Brakenridge said the desire to provide farmers with an
easy-care and market-led sheep marked the "beginning of a new
era" in New Zealand's sheep industry.
The work being done in production science, particularly in
areas like footrot and productivity, meant over time the
animal had "so much more scope for many, many more parts of
New Zealand," he said.
It was good news from the market perspective that the results
could be achieved through the careful selection and
amplification of existing genetics, rather than using some of
the more controversial techniques discussed in recent years.
Mr Brakenridge put the success of NZ Merino largely down to
"You've just got to have that enthusiasm in what you're
doing. You've got to have empathy for the sector ... and from
then on, it's tenacity."
But it was a commercial world and the company "can't for a
minute rest up".
"Yes, we've got some good relationships but ... you're only
as good as your last two or three interactions."
• Growers will have an opportunity to meet Dr
Ferguson and learn more about NZ Merino's production science
initiatives at a series of workshops next month.
Anyone interested in attending should contact Nick Hamilton
at The New Zealand Merino Company, phone (03) 335-0911.