Scientist pursuing life-long fascination

AgResearch scientist Dr Julie Everett-Hincks gets job satisfaction from helping farmers. Photo by Sally Rae.
AgResearch scientist Dr Julie Everett-Hincks gets job satisfaction from helping farmers. Photo by Sally Rae.
Julie Everett-Hincks' fascination with sheep breeding and lamb survival began at a young age.

Now a senior scientist at AgResearch Invermay, Dr Everett-Hincks grew up on a sheep farm in South Otago and, as soon as she could walk, she was out with her father on the farm.

Even as a young girl, she wondered "why some sheep made better mothers than other sheep".

"I thought, 'wouldn't it be great if we could breed great mums'," she recalled.

After leaving South Otago High School, she headed to Massey University with the intention of becoming a vet, but later switched to an agricultural science degree, specialising in animal breeding and farm management systems.

It was a diverse degree - "from ploughing paddocks to economics" - and it stood her in good stead for her future career path.

She was awarded a scholarship by the Wool Board to do her master's degree in animal breeding and wool production, and was then employed by the board. While there, she helped get shearing and wool-handling qualifications on to the New Zealand Qualifications Authority framework.

That was followed by a stint at Southland Polytechnic, where she ran the land strategy group, until she decided she "wanted to go back to what I wanted to do when I was a little girl".

Armed with a scholarship from AGMARDT, she returned to Massey and completed a PhD in animal science, investigating lamb rearing performance in highly fecund sheep.

Towards the end of her degree, she was approached by AgResearch and asked to join the team at Invermay, where she has remained.

Dr Everett-Hincks is involved with three main projects - a major research programme on lamb survival which looks at maternal and environmental factors which influence lamb survival; the deer progeny test; and triplet trials at Landcorp's Mararoa Station.

The lamb survival project, funded by Ovita, Beef and Lamb New Zealand farmer levies and AgResearch, involves farmers contributing pedigree (via SIL), lambing records and post-mortem data to a database with performance records of more than 200,000 lambs.

The Ovita trials aims to provide genomic breeding values for birthweight, lamb death and survival trait, using large-scale field trials on commercial breeding farms. Its aim is to make a significant difference to lamb revenue on New Zealand farms.

Dr Everett-Hincks encouraged farmers to consider how many lambs they lost this year and to identify the causes of those losses, if they could.

Lamb survival was crucial to profitability, both for individual farmers and the New Zealand sheep industry, she said.

"Understanding what influences lamb survival and monitoring lamb losses on each property is essential to making sure every lamb counts.

"Whatever you plan to do now, based on that information, will not only make a difference in the next lambing season, but also in three years' time when next season's ewe lambs go on to be mothers."

There were many reasons why lambs died in the crucial three-day period following birth, and they were not always the same every season.

But there were also common issues across the years, so closely monitoring the birthweight, cause and exactly what effect that was having on mortality rates was the first step in working out how to fix the problem, she said.

Ovita's research had already shown genetic methods and sire selection were important.

It also found that lambs born of optimum birth weight (5kg) had higher lamb survival rates, but survival was compromised for lambs born lighter or heavier than the optimum.

There were many positive steps farmers could take to improve survival, whether it was monitoring and maintaining ewe body condition, feed budgeting, allocating sufficient feed to meet a ewe's actual requirements, paddock selection, pasture covers or introducing proven, more accurate genetics, through sire selection.

Farmers could also consider weighing some lambs next year to help pinpoint opportunities to improve survival rates.

The great thing about the lamb survival programme was that it involved more of a farm system and holistic view, rather than just genetics, she said.

It was all about trying to get both the genetic and management package right to ensure the optimum birthweight, which would then give the lamb the best chance of survival when it "hit the ground" regardless of the weather.

"It's important to minimise risk," she said.

Dr Everett-Hincks particularly enjoyed working with Tim and Trish Smith, managers of Landcorp-owned Mararoa Station at Te Anau, on the triplet trial.

The project was initiated after Mr and Mrs Smith contacted AgResearch in a bid to work out how to manage all the triplets they were getting.

She worked with colleagues John Rendel and David Stevens looking at what the triplet ewes should be fed to get the best performance out of them and, from there, economic modelling would also be done.

The team at Mararoa was doing a "fabulous job" lifting body condition score in the ewes in late pregnancy and to see how that translated into lamb growth rates and weaning weights would be exciting, she said.

Dr Everett-Hincks recently spent a couple of days on the station, helping with tagging and lambing, and she loved being "hands on".

She tried to challenge farmers to think about things "a bit differently" and to take time out of their business to work on it, not in it. She urged them to think about things like lambing dates - were they timed right for pasture growth - or to consider the number of ewes they were running, and if it was too many.

She was a key advocate for feeding sheep better, "then start working on other things".

Today's sheep were very different from what they used to be and more was expected from them performance-wise, but unless they were fed more, "that's not going to happen".

The need to feed better was not just confined to the sheep industry, but also deer and dairy, she said.

As long as there were people like Mr and Mrs Smith who were willing to "give it a go and push those boundaries", then there were "fabulous opportunities to keep trying things out".

"We've blown a lot of theories out of the water working with people like that, willing to give it a go," she said.

Dr Everett-Hincks was also enjoying her work with the deer progeny test, an initiative for the industry which began last year.

While the deer industry was new to her, it involved the same skills, knowledge and experience so, in many respects, it was not too different.

She had her "dream job" and, what she enjoyed most, was helping farmers, Dr Everett-Hincks said. She had built up some great relationships with farmers over the years and a key factor to establishing those relationships was empathy.

Having grown up in the farming community, she was fully aware of the issues and challenges they were facing.

She spent quite a lot of time speaking with farmers and farmer groups, which proved very valuable, as it resulted in lots of questions, observations and feedback which aided her research.

She also enjoyed working with "wonderful people" at Invermay and it was a team approach.

"We discuss things, we work together."

Dr Everett-Hincks combined part-time work with motherhood. She and her partner, and her 4-year-old daughter, enjoy living on a lifestyle property, near Brighton.