Opinion: technology enhances farming

Beef + Lamb New Zealand replies to a complaint by sheep breeders that stockmanship is being...
Beef + Lamb New Zealand replies to a complaint by sheep breeders that stockmanship is being overshadowed by numbers for sheep breeding. PHOTO: TIM CRONSHAW
By Dan Brier


Striking a balance between traditional stockmanship and technological advances in sheep breeding is crucial.

Beef + Lamb New Zealand (B+LNZ) recognises that a few breeders, such as David Wyllie, may have concerns about the increasing reliance on calculated breeding values (BV). While traditional practices are valuable, embracing technology can enhance decision-making and overall flock performance.

Sheep and beef cattle breeders are the backbone of our successful sheep and beef industry in New Zealand. Genetic improvement is estimated to have contributed about half of the incredible productivity gains sheep farmers in New Zealand have made since 1990 and breeders such as Mr Wyllie played a key role in that.

B+LNZ emphasises a holistic approach, urging farmers to consider both the "type" and "figures" when buying rams. Calculated BVs provide valuable insights into genetic potential.

There are several things a farmer needs to take into consideration when buying rams. Firstly, they need to be confident that they will get their ewes pregnant. Most rams are expected to mate about 100 ewes in about five weeks, so they need to be up to the task. Breeders rightly go to some length to ensure the rams they present for sale are sound (unlikely to go lame) and fit for mating in a flock. This is the domain of stud breeders, and buyers of rams will quickly move elsewhere if they are being presented unsound rams.

Secondly, they want to be confident about the characteristics the ram they buy will be passed on to their lambs.

Mr Wyllie mentions meat and carcass characteristics that are very important to some farmers, while others will be more interested in things such as reproduction or lamb survival. This is where the "figures" come in.

There is a huge body of research around the world which shows that by knowing information about an individual animal and combining that with information we know about the individual’s family, we can predict how much of the performance we see in an animal is because of its genetics versus how much is not (the "not" is known as the environmental effect).

This is especially important for traits which can’t be measured on the animal being assessed, for example, milking ability is impossible to determine in rams. It is important to help rule out the environmental effects. For instance, if one farmer feeds his sheep better than another breeder, they will likely have bigger carcasses.

Our evaluation determines how much of that variation is because of the genetics of the animals and how much is because of the better feeding.

Even within a flock there are environmental effects that need to be allowed for. Ram Lamb A could grow to 40kg at 100 days while Ram Lamb B could only reach 30kg. However, if A is a singleton and B is one of three triplets, A has an advantage in growth that has nothing to do with genetics.

B+LNZ, as the custodian of the national evaluation system, never advocates on selecting animals based on their figures (estimated BVs) alone. Each farmer should align themselves with a stud farmer that has a similar genetic direction and goals for their flock.

They should work together to ensure the "type" of animal is appropriate for their farm and flock. The free online tool — nProve.nz — can help farmers find a stud breeder with a similar breeding objective to them.

Sheep breeding in New Zealand hinges on a blend of collaboration, open dialogue, and an unwavering commitment to continuous improvement. This approach not only ensures the industry’s ability to thrive amidst present challenges but also emphasises the preservation of invaluable wisdom from the past. By embracing a forward-thinking yet mindful perspective, the future of sheep breeding stands poised for sustainable growth and enduring success.

— Dan Brier is farming excellence general manager for B+LNZ