Friday, December 8, 2023

Stepping up to genetics plate

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Waikaretu Valley sheep and beef farmer Kate Broadbent is committed to improving the odds for New Zealand sheep farmers against natural hazards. Luke Chivers reports. 
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Sheep and beef farmer Kate Broadbent from Nikau Coopworth in Waikaretu Valley in Waikato is combining her passion for the land with sheep genetics and performance recording.

The former Canadian has a longstanding connection with the primary sector, science and innovation.

“I grew up on a dairy farm in Nova Scotia, Canada and it was there my love of farming was born,” Broadbent says.

“I’ve always known I wouldn’t survive very long in an office or in traffic.

“But there’s nothing quite like being outside and doing physical work. I enjoy the variety of jobs – fixing waterlines, mending fences, tagging lambs or shearing sheep.”

And shearing sheep is exactly what Broadbent did for more than 25 years.

“I worked as a shearer and shepherd in the United Kingdom, across Canada and in North America.

“I traded winter for summer, chasing the shearing season year-round.”

Broadbent, who now has New Zealand residency, ended up here through her connection with the sheep industry’s Woodward family.

Her Canadian neighbours were sheep farmers who knew Anne and Philip Woodward from Waikaretu. The Woodwards are progressive farmers renowned for their dedication to the Coopworth breed and their place in the future of NZ’s sheep industry, she says.

“I’d heard their passion was infectious and their ideas revolutionary.

“They saw breeding animals with natural resistance to parasites as a big part of the long-term, sustainable solution for parasite management – and well before it was widely-respected.

“The Woodwards focused their breeding programme on parasite resistance to strengthen their flock with animals that required less drench, reducing the risk of drench resistance, increasing farm profitability and taking the edge off workload.”

Broadbent is no stranger to on-farm research and development. 

She is president of Coopworth Genetics NZ, a member of the Beef + Lamb NZ farmer council, and a founding member of the steering committee of FE Gold as well as WormFec Gold – which seek to protect and advocate for farmers who breed for parasite-resistant genetics.

Her stud has a close association with Lincoln and Massey Universities and is a part of the Coopworth Society, Sheep Improvement, NZ Ovine Sire Referencing and Frontier Genetics.

“I’ve always been interested in genetics and I’ve always liked the challenge of it.”

Broadbent’s involvement in FE Golld, which has been running for six years, wasn’t formed to sell more rams.

“Its primary goal is to educate the ram buyer as to the top level of genetic tolerance available. It is the only industry group that encompasses any breed. There are Romney, Perendale and Coopworth flocks with FE Gold status.

“It is not about the breed but about years of testing and level of testing and using only tested sires in stud flocks.

“These are flocks at the top of the game.” 

She says the group was started to counter misinformation. 

“The challenge is to provide commercial farmers with the tools to help them select a breeder and the ram genetics to help them lift tolerance.”

“There will be a lot of rams advertised this year as high tolerance or resistant that have very little testing history, low testing levels or minimal selection.

“A lot of the ram-selling companies and farms have large marketing budgets. Farmers buy them thinking they’re getting a good ram and the progeny falls apart, which undermines everything we do.”

It is a trend that is also undermining NZ’s licence to sell internationally, Broadbent says. 

“NZ is uniquely poised to sell products. We’ve got a huge opportunity. 

“We have high environmental standards, an international marketplace wanting to know where their food comes from and that we treat our animals and workers well. 

“We can provide this,” she says.

“But right now we’re missing out because we’re not operating under one banner – NZ Inc.

“We’re telling a lot of different stories from the sheep and beef industry to the dairy and venison industries and the agricultural industry. 

“We need to tell the story that we are doing it – that as farmers we are actually walking the walk – and I think a lot of that goes back to reducing the inputs and the reliance on chemical use. 

“I’m not advocating we all go organic because that in itself can potentially be an animal welfare issue. But it’s about farming smarter.

“Some farmers see these consumer demands as negative but as a breeder I think it’s an opportunity,” she says. 

And in Broadbent’s case, a big part of that is drenching less and maintaining FE tolerance.

“Today’s affluent consumers want to purchase products that have had minimal inputs and met good standards. 

“If they can’t get lamb in the condition they want it, they’ll buy a different meat instead. Consumer demand is constantly evolving so we too must change in order to keep up.”

Naturally, Broadbent says she is always looking ahead. 

“I frequently ask myself: ‘what can I do today to help me in 10 years from now?’ It forces me to challenge my operations and future-proof my business.

“The future holds all sorts of opportunities for our industry so long as we continue to step up to the plate.”

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