Trial seeking to future-proof NZ’s sheep industry

// Breeding and Genetics

Beef + Lamb New Zealand Genetics’ Low Input Sheep Progeny Trial is identifying the genetics that will future-proof this country’s sheep industry. Part one of this two-part series, looks at how the trial is set up and the industry-breaker-dags.

image of sheep flock

As consumers are increasingly demanding meat produced with minimal inputs and intervention, B+LNZ Genetic’s Low Input Sheep Progeny Trial will identify environmentally-efficient sheep that perform without docking, drenching or dagging.

Run on Orari Gorge Station, a 4,500ha hill country farm in South Canterbury, the Trial is testing the genetics put forward by 16 future-focused sheep breeders.

It is the ideal testing ground for genetics. The Station is 75% tussock country, 15% lower hill with only 10% flats. Average annual rainfall is 1200mm. Owner Robert Peacock says it is wet more than it is dry, so worms are a constant challenge.

Speaking at a recent B+LNZ Genetics Progeny Trial field day, Robert says another significant driver in the need for low input sheep is the shortage of farm staff.

“It’s becoming harder and harder to find staff to do the tailing, the dagging and the dipping,” says Robert.

Ironically for a Low Input Sheep Trial, there is a huge amount of work involved with all monitoring and measuring which includes artificially inseminating ewes, measuring methane production as well as the standard performance and production recording associated with any progeny trial.

Robert says he has been passionate about low input sheep farming for years and is concerned the industry as a whole doesn’t know what’s ahead of it – “or does it have its head in the sand?”

He says the steering committee for the Low Input Progeny Trial, which Robert is part of, is wanting to encourage other stud breeder to select for traits such as worm resistance and dags to help the whole industry move forward.

“But it is up to commercial farmers to be asking their stud breeder for these traits.”

Lambs under pressure

The Low Input Progeny Trial involves 17 rams representing 10 breeds, which predominately through Artificial Insemination, are mating 1000 ewes.

The first cohort of lambs was born in 2019 and the third mating has just finished.

Ewes lamb unshepherded on the hill and at docking lamb tails are measured and male lambs are left untailed.

“The way the world is moving we may not be able to tail and everything changes when you leave the tails on, says Robert.

“You have issues with dags and flystrike.”

At weaning, weights are taken and the lambs are given a dag score (but not crutched). All lambs are drenched and dipped.

A control group of lambs is selected and while these are run with the rest of the lamb crop, unlike the others, they are drenched at regular intervals.

Without drench, the hill country lambs were growing at 140gms/day between December and May and even when pushed hard, Robert says they were still gaining 100/gms a day.

A clover crop was used to lift condition and this worked well.

In the ewe lambs, Robert found growth rates dropped off after shearing.

“You’ve really got to be at the top of your game with low input sheep, you’ve got to get the management right when you’re cutting corners with drench.”

Dags – an industry deal breaker

Dags, according to Robert, will be one trait that will break the industry as it moves toward low input sheep- yet they are very heritable so can be selected for. On SIL, there are only 34 breeders selecting for dags.

“It is the easiest, cheapest trait you can measure and commercial farmers need to start asking for it.”

In this trial, the dags, says Robert, were “horrendous.”

“We were getting 4kgs of dags off a single animal.”

He says at weaning, there was no difference between the males and female lambs, but in March, the difference was huge.

The average dag score for the females was 1.5 (one a scale of one to five with five being the worst) and 2.5 in the males “and we were easier on boys.”