Wednesday, April 24, 2024

No-wool revolution sweeps hill country

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Hugh Stringleman takes a closer look at the trend after a summer in which trade in Wiltshires has dominated sheep sales.
Reading Time: 5 minutes

Wool-shedding sheep and those breeds that don’t grow wool are now being marketed on workload and productivity gains for hill country sheep farmers around the country.

Coarse wool returns that do not cover the costs of shearing and crutching, along with the labour demands of drafting and dosing, are convincing a growing number of farmers to look for no-wool options.

The buying and selling of Wiltshires has dominated sheep sales over the summer, this year and in two or three previous years.

Some older farmers are not prepared to breed their way to shedding sheep, opting instead to sell all existing ewes and replace them with full-breed Wiltshires, Southland breeder Tom Day said.

Day promotes his sheep for the easy care, low labour, and frugal expense qualities that enable him to run 5800 hectares with only two labour units.

“In the past three or four years the demand has increased dramatically, and it is not just the lifestylers now but bigger commercial sheep farms.”

Day sold 30 two-tooth rams and 20 ram lambs at his annual Tarata Hills sale in February near Dipton for an average of about $1000, with a starting bid of $600 to keep them affordable to all buyers.

Day and his father before him, Malcolm, have been breeding Wiltshires since 2002, when Malcolm bought a farm in the Tākitimu mountains without power supply or a woolshed.

William Morrison and his father John before him have always believed in the future of Wiltshire shedding sheep.

“He got some flack in the first few years, and it is great to see him getting recognition as the popularity of these sheep grows.

“We now have coastal sheep farmers near us talking about it, and if anyone is hard to convince, it is a Southland farmer.”

That was an observation echoed by leading Wiltshire breeder and ram seller William Morrison, Ardo Farms, in Rangitīkei.

Morrison’s father, John, gathered all the Wiltshires in the country together at Marton in the 1980s and the Morrison family has used and championed that breed ever since.

Morrison said demand for rams has doubled every year for the past four or five years and is now being led by commercial farmers all over the country.

He likened this move toward shedding sheep to the flurry of exotic sheep importations in the 1990s when the focus was on fertility.

“We find that single-trait focusing on shedding up until now is giving way to productivity traits such as carcase characteristics, growth rates and reproductive performance.”

“But sometimes the real sheep farming traits are being left out of selection decisions as people advocate or demand 100% shedding.

“This also drives a market expectation that all Wiltshire sheep shed their fleece completely, all of the time, which is not the case.”

Selected, recorded and proven Wiltshire rams are spreading the future of shedding sheep on New Zealand hill country.

He called for more research into how shedding occurs, because it is not 100% genetic.

While a decade ago there may have been only four or five recorded flocks, there are now somewhere between 20 and 30, Morrison said.

“Wiltshire sheep and the range of alternative breeds will benefit hugely from the large increase in performance recording, both in the numbers of stud flocks and numbers of sheep being recorded.  

“These sheep will make huge genetic gains in the next five to 10 years,” Morrison said.

Somewhat later to begin – but now throwing big bucks and plenty of energy into breeding up and selling newly named Nudie sheep – is Derek Daniell’s Wairere Rams based at Masterton and Pahiatua.

Wairere is quickly building its no-wool sheep numbers by using artificial insemination (AI) and embryo transfer (ET) with genetics from the United Kingdom that were not previously in New Zealand, along with natural mating to NZ-born Nudie ram hoggets retained by the company.

Over three mating seasons it has put 4500 ewes to both AI and ET, with conception rates in the mid to high 60s for frozen semen AI and about 10% lower for ET.

All Nudie and Streaker (half-bred) ewe lambs were retained for hogget mating and returned 78% conception for the Nudies and 91% for the Streakers, with 103% and 135% scanning results respectively.

Surplus Streaker lambs have been killed this summer for comparison against Wairere Romney ram lambs, showing good weight-gain margins in the early drafts, levelling off later on.

“Currently our focus is building numbers in our flock, so that we can get to a stage where we can exert some selection pressure,” Daniell said. 

Wairere will have over 2000 Nudie and part-breed ewe lambs after this year’s reproductive cycle.

“The bulk of the breeding flock will be graded up from the Wairere ewe base to ensure that all the renowned traits will be incorporated in the Nudie flock, including facial eczema resilience.

“April 2024 will be the last year for artificial breeding with genetics from the UK, as we have a strong and diverse genetic pool to establish our flock with,” Daniell said.

Besides shedding, farmers using Nudies want to know that lambs can grow quickly to 20kg CW or more, maintain or improve their flock lambing percentage, allow a good hogget mating and maintain or improve constitution.

Wairere Rams is now able to offer larger lines of what it calls Nudie ram hoggets after embryo transfer and artificial insemination programmes to bring in UK genetics.

The Wiltshire genetics in NZ have been limited in their scope and outcrosses are needed, Daniell said. 

Farmers who buy in also need more than first-cross hybrid vigour which, although welcome, is by its nature limited.

“To make sense of sheep that have no wool, farmers need to plan for what they will do with the extra time available.

“You might not need that additional shepherd, or their house, or their farm bike.”

The bulk of the Wairere home and satellite sheep flocks remain Romneys and their composites, and the Nudies and their part-breeds are catering for what Daniell calls a split underway in sheep industry demand – wool or no wool.

He still believes coarse wool has a brilliant future, especially in its deconstructed uses, and is a member of Wools of NZ. 

“To restore faith in wool the researchers and marketers need to come up with at least $10/kg.”

Wairere marketing manager Pierre Syben said that “the reality is that as a breeder of sheep genetics for the sake of our client base we have looked for an alternative to wool-growing sheep”. 

“The move to shedding sheep is deeper and wider spread than many may realise,” he said.  

PGG Wrightson genetics representative and auctioneer Cam Heggie said shedding sheep have become more affordable and the ewes and ewe lambs are coming to market. 

He said of ewe lambs for $400 and two-tooth ewes for $500, “it is not just shedding, but faecal egg counting, facial eczema resistance, carcase characteristics and recorded breeding, all providing options for intending buyers”.

“We are seeing older farmers, perhaps the more traditional ones, taking an interest in what shedding sheep have to offer.

“We have given crossbred wool 35 years of hope, but hope is not paying the bills.”

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