Thursday, August 18, 2022

Aussie eyes on Kiwi beef goals

Thirty years of traversing the Tasman to trade ideas with farmers and researchers on what makes a good beef operation has been a career highlight for University of Adelaide professor of animal breeding and genetics Professor Wayne Pitchford. He spoke to Richard Rennie about his latest role this side of the ditch in Beef + Lamb NZ’s Informing NZ Beef programme.

Beef + Lamb NZ’s Informing NZ Beef programme is an ambitious industry plan to lift farm profitability, while also enhancing the sustainability of NZ beef production by adopting improved genetics. 

Professor Wayne Pitchford’s long-standing relationships with the NZ industry and his deep experience with animal genetics make him the ideal pair of “outside eyes” on the plan’s objectives and to help make sure it is realised over the next seven years.

“Coming from Australia, it could be easy to visit NZ, look at the scenery through rose tinted glasses and think how easy it is for beef cows there. The reality is they live in a pretty tough environment. 

“We tend to spend time here thinking if an animal can eat less it’s more efficient. From a Kiwi view, if they eat more low-quality feed, cows improve the pasture and if anything should be bred to eat more. That’s quite a paradigm shift to absorb.”

He also sees similarities to his native South Australia, known to have the driest farming climate in Australia, but one where the variation between years is greater than NZ experiences.

“You can be the wrong side of a bad season as you start off farming in South Australia and it will set you back significantly in your career and financial position.”

He sees the beef programme as an opportunity for the NZ beef industry to drive its own genetic destiny in developing a more productive, sustainable livestock population tailored to NZ’s pastoral demands, rather than being led by Australian or United States genetics.

He believes the dairy sector with its “Kiwi-cross” milking cow is the perfect analogy for the approach the beef sector could adopt. 

“They have got the genetics right with a modest cow, one that copes in an all pasture systems, getting in calf early and holding her body condition score.”

“Based on my time in New Zealand I have come to realise it is not just about that, it is about the wellbeing and resilience of the cow in a harsh environment, and whether she passes the pub test for what a ‘healthy’ cow looks like.”

Professor Wayne Pitchford
University of Adelaide

Professor Pitchford says he is particularly keen to see NZ develop a commercially-proven inter-breed index, one that includes body condition score (BCS) in data collected, along with the usual performance indices like calving ease and days to calving.

A moderately heritable trait, BCS is a valuable trait not simply linked to a beef cow’s ability to get back in calf.

“Based on my time in NZ, I have come to realise it is not just about that, it is about the wellbeing and resilience of the cow in a harsh environment, and whether she passes the pub test for what a ‘healthy’ cow looks like.”

BCS understanding is an area he believes NZ can lead in and has done a good job instilling into its dairy farming sector.

For beef it is an area where work by genetics company Abacus has already built a sound beachhead.

Pitchford is also a big advocate for incorporating commercial data into genetic evaluation, providing it is based off animals that are bred, reared, processed and graded together for statistical uniformity for comparative analysis.

“Having those shared, known pathways requires a high level of partnership and co-operation along the supply chain to share that information.” 

Coupled with an inter-breed comparison, the data becomes “breed agnostic” and NZ specific, in the same way the dairy sector has managed.

“In dairying, because you cannot milk a bull, they have always had an imperative to have commercial data come in through progeny.”

With genomic mapping now accessible and more affordable, NZ is well positioned with a good pool of genomic research talent to tap into beef sector genes, rather than being confined largely to pedigree assessment.

In defining commercial parameters in the Informing Beef programme, NZ can also take some lessons from Pitchford’s homeland. 

He maintains Australia has done a better job selecting genetics for meat quality but believes NZ still has a significant opportunity to produce high quality grass-fed marbled beef and enjoy the premium it can fetch. 

He points to Mt Linton’s grass-fed Angus beef as an example of what could be achieved more broadly, achieving good cow productivity and high meat quality.

With the Informing Beef programme running for seven years, he sees the “dream scene” for Kiwi beef farmers as one where they get to buy bulls that are genuinely going to increase profitability, regardless of breed type.

“Part of my role is to be the outside person able to throw in a few challenges. If it challenges Australian industry at the same time, then that’s great too.”

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