Thursday, July 7, 2022

Move to combine genetics entities

Three mainstays of New Zealand sheep genetics are inching closer together. Tim Fulton reports on the thinking behind the shuffle.

Ovita, Sheep Improvement Limited (SIL), and Beef + Lamb New Zealand’s Central Progeny Test will operate under the same roof if farmers and the Government approve.

Ovita focuses on genomic research, looking at the genetic information contained in DNA, while SIL is devoted more to quantitative genetics, using traditional predigree or family-based analysis, based on mathematical calculations about heritability.

Central Progeny Test, which provides information on the connections between flocks, has provided information to the SIL database.

Until now the breeding industry has treated Ovita and SIL as separate investments, even though they both aim for genetic enhancement.

B+LNZ’s general manager of farms Richard Wakelin said funding for the Ovita consortium was about to end as the Government introduced its preferred private-public partnerships.

The imminent end of the consortia era stimulated the proposed new group, Beef + Lamb Genetics, which needs approval by the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment (MBIE) and a farmer vote.

B+LNZ Genetics will be owned by B+LNZ and will operate as a partnership with AgResearch.

In Ovita’s case the funding partners remained in place – it’s just that the Government’s model had changed, Wakelin said.

Farmers would be asked to vote on the proposed new group because the money involved breached B+LNZ’s prescribed hurdle for industry investment, he said (see panel).

Bringing the entities together would help breeders collate information and it made sense to have everything in the same camp for efficiency’s sake, he said.

“If you ask me have I had any negative response, I can’t think of anything negative that anyone’s actually said to me. But a lot of people have actually said ‘well, about time’.”

Richard Wakelin


The proposed genetics industry group wouldn’t be part of the B+LNZ’s intended primary growth partnership (PGP) with the Crown, but its goals were similar.

Like the PGP, it would aim to provide farmers and service groups information to increase productivity.

“One of the real objectives of Beef + Lamb Genetics is to increase the information flow and uptake by farmers and one of the vehicles will hopefully be the PGP and others.”

Any government funding of Beef + Lamb Genetics would be through MBIE rather than the Ministry for Primary Industries because the science and commercial funding involved had historically been channelled through the former Foundation of Science, Research and Technology.

That body is now part of the Government’s MBIE mega ministry.

Consultation with breeders and the genetics industry had been relatively trouble-free so far, Wakelin said.

Ram breeders were showing the most interest, as would be expected, given they used the existing systems for analysing their performance, whereas commercial farmers who might get the benefit of improvements by default might be more ambivalent, he said.

Unlike some previous proposals for genetic improvement, people didn’t appear threatened by Beef + Lamb Genetic’s intent.

“If you ask me have I had any negative response, I can’t think of anything negative that anyone’s actually said to me. But a lot of people have actually said ‘well, about time’.”

Getting the required funding variation was a chicken and egg scenario, he said.

The breeding industry hoped the Government would confirm its involvement next month, as the forerunner to the special B+LNZ meeting in November.

Hearing from the Government first would help give the project’s developers a better idea of what to do with Ovita as its came to the end of its current life, Wakelin said.

B+LNZ was telling beef farmers there would be more focus on optimising breeding objectives, with emphasis on hill country and making it easier to use genetic information for farm planning.

There would continue to be work across the spectrum of beef genetics and it was expected Breedplan would remain the main evaluation system used by beef bull breeders.

Money and structure

Beef + Lamb New Zealand invests $2.9 million annually in genetics-related activity, through Sheep Improvement, the B+LNZ Central Progeny Test and Ovita.

If the B+LNZ Genetics programme went ahead, B+LNZ’s investment would remain at $2.9m, with third-party investment of about $1.5m and Government funding potentially boosting the investment to $8.8m annually.

The total, potential five-year investment of $44m was predicted to generate $742m of additional genetic value behind the farmgate.

That was about $45 on every NZ lamb sold. The extra value would be from adding new traits, applying more accurate evaluations and increasing rates of adoption of genetic tools and information, B+LNZ said during the consultation round.

It also reiterated estimates that for a $100 lamb, genetics had delivered $14 more profit compared to the animal 20 years ago. 

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