Sunday, July 3, 2022

Dutch immigrant does wonders for deer

New Zealand’s deer industry is unique. A feral pest has been successfully integrated into sheep and beef farming, often making excellent use of otherwise marginal land. Annual exports total about $300m and there is plenty of scope for growth in a world hungry for lean meat.

Deer Industry NZ (DINZ) has identified huge potential productivity gains, especially from genetic improvement. Its strategy is more, heavier and earlier. This means steady growth in numbers and heavier yearling carcasses ready for market in spring to meet the demand for chilled cuts in the traditional European game season.

As other livestock industries have found, the key to driving genetic gain is a multi-trait breeding objective underpinned by a single national database. The DINZ initiative is called DEERSelect and its creation coincided with a bold move by dairy farmer-owned genetics company Livestock Improvement (LIC) to apply in the venison industry what it has learned in cattle breeding.

The new genetics company was named Deer Improvement and was founded in 2003 by Peter Gatley, LIC’s genetics manager, and Jake Chardon, a Dutch immigrant and small-scale sheep farmer from the Tirohanga hills near Cambridge. More important than his sheep farming experience though, was Jake’s expertise and experience as one of the world’s leading geneticists.

After attending university in the United States in the late 1960s, Jake returned to the Netherlands and took a leading role in rebuilding the nation’s once-proud cattle breeding industry, which had become heavily dependent on imported genetics, something that rankled in the home of the Holstein Friesian cow. The scale of his contribution was recognised in 1995 when he was named International Dairy Industry Person of the Year at the World Dairy Expo in Wisconsin, United States. Several years later he retired as chief executive officer from farmer-cooperative Holland Genetics, leaving behind one of the global breeding companies and bringing to New Zealand a life-time of experience, which was snapped up quickly by LIC.

There are strong parallels between Jake’s experience in dairy cattle and deer and he makes it sound like a simple recipe. “You just need to identify your breeding goal, sample all of the promising bloodlines and reliably measure their genetic merit. After that you need to avoid inbreeding, encourage genetic diversity and mate the best to the best as soon as possible to shorten the generation interval.”

The formula is well known, but it seems there is as much art as science. It’s one thing to study music and learn the piano, it’s another to play Rachmaninoff.  Selection pressure in deer had previously been applied to temperament and antler traits, but the national database shows that until breeding values were calculated, weight gain in stud sires had a lot more to do with feeding than breeding. The progress made is quantified by the four-trait economic breeding index created by DEERSelect.

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