Allan Barber reports on two genetics programmes critical for improving productivity. Will farmers adopt the results?

Allan Barber reports on two genetics programmes critical for improving productivity. Will farmers adopt the results?

By Allan Barber

Two complementary programmes have just been announced which promise to deliver improved sheep traits which will compensate for lower production and generate greater profits.

Beef + Lamb New Zealand Genetics is a proposed new partnership between B+LNZ and the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment (MBIE) which will combine existing levy payer funding of $2.9 million with $1.5 million of third party investment to be matched by $4.4 million from MBIE.

B+LNZ currently invests its share in the activities of Sheep Improvement Limited, Central Progeny Test and Ovita which has been a joint venture with AgResearch for the last 10 years.

This will now be wrapped up into B+LNZ Genetics, while AgResearch will provide major input into the new programme which will broaden the historical breeding excellence focus to determine breeding values and genetic ability to perform on hill country.

This reflects the inevitability of sheep breeding moving progressively up the hillsides onto harder country, while the lower slopes are almost entirely devoted to other more profitable farming types. Dairy, dairy grazing, lamb finishing, bull farming and horticulture to name a few.

The Genetics programme has an extremely aggressive profit focus, predicting a gain in value of $742 million in return for a five year investment of $44 million, equivalent to a gain in excess of $45 for every lamb sold.

That’s not far off a 50% gain on present values which is hard to believe, especially since not every sheep farmer will adopt the best practice recommended.

In contrast a $100 lamb has gained $14 in value over the last 20 years through genetic gain, better feeding and management systems; as a result a 50% reduction in sheep numbers over the period has only resulted in a fall of 7% in exports. The programme also focuses on improved performance in beef cattle.

MBIE will decide this month whether to support the programme, while B+LNZ levy payers will vote in November. I suspect there will be a requirement to justify the projected extent of the gains, although a gain of even half the forecast $742 million gain would be a reasonable return on the investment.

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The second programme which has been announced by FarmIQ is the release of the genotyping chip for the sheep genome which will test a sheep’s genetics and predict its productivity and meat quality.

This involves the release of a high density chip which is capable of identifying 600,000 points across the sheep’s genome, known as SNPs.

The outcome is a very robust assessment of the animal’s yield and meat quality linked to what happens on the farm and in the processing plant.

Further advantages of the chip, known as the “Ovine Infinium® HD SNP BeadChip,” include increased on-farm productivity, disease resistance and reduced greenhouse gas emissions.

Although both programmes could give the impression that they are trying to achieve roughly the same outcome, the two are in essence complementary and some of the parties, AgResearch and Ovita, are involved in both. At the same time MBIE will be studying the situation closely to ensure that it is not providing two lots of money for the same thing.

B+LNZ Genetics will definitely continue to build on its previous work with SIL, Central Progeny Test and Ovita, to identify new traits which will enable more accurate evaluation and assist the adoption of genetic tools and information.

The two programmes appear to be directed at different audiences within the same overall group of sheep and beef farmers. B+LNZ Genetics will reach those farmers already in its other breeding programmes, while the genotyping chip will initially reach those farmers who have already signed up to FarmIQ.

This is highly desirable because the main problem as usual will be the extension process designed to increase farmer uptake of the research.

If there is a weakness in the scientific approach, it is the reluctance of the target market to adopt new technology and, consequently, speed up the process of improving the genetic performance of the national beef herd and sheep flock.

With two million less lambs forecast for next season and alternative farm uses taking more pastoral farmland, this can’t come soon enough.

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Allan Barber is a commentator on agribusiness, especially the meat industry, and lives in the Matakana Wine Country where he runs a boutique B&B with his wife. You can contact him by email at allan@barberstrategic.co.nz or read his blog here »

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