New Zealand Merino Company production science project
leader Dr Mark Ferguson aims to help produce more efficient
fine wool sheep. Photo by NZ Merino Company.
Mark Ferguson may be trying to help provide the perfect
sheep - but he also reckons he has the perfect job.
Dr Ferguson is an Australian-born geneticist specialising in
fine wool sheep who moved from Western Australia to
Christchurch last year to join the New Zealand Merino
He is leading NZM's production science project, an initiative
that aims to unlock the potential of ''the perfect sheep'' -
one that was healthy, fertile and high-producing, with
high-quality meat and wool fit for high-value markets.
The project is being co-funded by the Ministry for Primary
Industries through the Primary Growth Partnership.
Dr Ferguson grew up on a farm in Victoria which was mostly
cropping, with some sheep, and his brother started a Poll
Dorset sheep stud.
He studied agricultural science at university in Melbourne
and while later working for the State Department of
Agriculture he ended up doing a lot of sheep nutrition-type
Under a range of nutritional conditions, some sheep
''crashed'' while others coped and it got him intrigued in
the genetics that underpinned that robustness.
''Basically my interest in life is how you get the right
genetics on the right farms and optimise the whole thing,''
He later completed a PhD in Perth and worked in Western
Australia in a research position and also doing some
lecturing. His involvement with NZM began when he started
doing consulting work for the company and he was later
offered a job.
Dr Ferguson said he had watched the growth of merino clothing
company Icebreaker over the past decade, he knew about NZM
and he believed it was a ''huge opportunity''.
He hoped to be able to help make a real difference as part of
a team that aimed to produce better, more efficient sheep.
''Kiwi farmers are just as much fun as Australian farmers to
work with. It's an awesome job ... I just really enjoy the
company and the job,'' he said.
Dr Ferguson believed there was a ''massive opportunity'' for
fine wool sheep, with meat attributes, globally.
While there would always be a more traditional merino system,
with some properties unable to either run reproductive sheep,
or not many of them, due to the type of country, there was so
much potential in ''middle ground'' hill country, in the
likes of North Canterbury and Otago.
Work was also being done to find solutions for footrot and if
footrot became less of an issue, he believed, the ''gates
will be opened''.
Dr Ferguson will be speaking at a production science field
day at Hawarden in North Canterbury on Wednesday, where the
progeny of 40 rams bred at NZM's central progeny test site at
Waipara will be on display.
NZM sourced 2200 ewes from commercial flocks representative
of the New Zealand fine wool flock.
In April, they were mated via artificial insemination to rams
sourced from New Zealand stud breeders as well as rams
specifically selected from Australia.
It was thought to be one of the bigger AI programmes to be
undertaken in the New Zealand sheep industry.
Data from the CPT progeny would be collected to provide a
data set that would be used to demonstrate various factors
including the wide range in performance of industry sires, an
estimate of the genetic parameters for footrot, identifying
rams that performed well on non-traditional merino country,
lamb survival, footrot and worm challenges, wool
measurements, wrinkle and dag score, fleece rot and fly
strike, fat and muscle, growth rates, and female
The field day would give breeders and other interested people
and opportunity to look at the progeny at weaning, Dr
A comprehensive overview of the production science programme
would be provided with 10 speakers addressing the day.
They included Dr Jason Trompf, a nutrition specialist from
Australia; agronomist and lucerne specialist Dick Arnst, Dave
Anderson, from Bog Roy Station, at Omarama, on forage
development on the property, Graeme Ogle on the economics on
dryland development, and Wayne Cameron giving an update on
Silere Alpine Origin Merino.
The day would cover genetics through to feeding and the end
market, Dr Ferguson said.