Smedley Station is the first step for many young cadets in farming. Since March 2016, the 5054ha Hawke’s Bay training farm has also been making the first steps in on-farm progeny testing of sheep. Until recently, central progeny testing (CPT) was done solely in lowland research centres, which did not necessarily reflect the hill country environment of most New Zealand sheep. The goal is to help breeders and commercial farmers more easily identify genetics that will perform best for them, by testing in actual farming environments.
The CPT works by comparing how different rams’ offspring perform, when lambs are run in identical circumstances.
B+LNZ Genetics has made changes to the progeny tesing programme to increase the diversity of testing locations, the speed of genetic gain, the number of rams tested and, therefore, the connectedness of ram breeding flocks across the country. The B+LNZ Genetics Sheep CPT provides vital genetic connections for its New Zealand Genetic Evaluation – the world’s largest across-flock, across-breed sheep genetic evaluation.
Perendale rams under spotlight
Smedley is working with B+LNZ Genetics and the Perendale Society of New Zealand to test the genetic potential of 23 up-and-coming Perendale rams across 1000 of its two tooth ewes, chosen at random. In late October 2016, the progeny was DNA tested and marked with electronic identification tags. The lambs’ performance is now being monitored closely and assessed across a range of production and health traits.
Smedley manager Rob Evans says the CPT ewes are run with Smedley’s commercial flock, except at mating and lambing. “They’re exposed to exactly the same conditions – there is no favouritism on the ground.”
Evans says it has been “all guns blazing” since the rams arrived in autumn last year. “This is a huge opportunity for the station to educate cadets in technology and to use the power of data. It’s the way farming is heading and we want to expose the cadets to it now. It’s a big driver for us.”
Wider use of technology
Arriving at the same time was an autodrafter, scales and data management system. Previously, Smedley only weighed cattle and, periodically, lambs.
Evans says Smedley plans to use its new technology more widely. “We plan to tag (non CPT) lambs and use the data in some of the theory work in class. It’ll also help us do things like understand if plantain and lucerne are outperforming grass and put a bit more power behind our thinking.”
Smedley is well placed to host central progeny testing. “We don’t have a shortage of labour. If it means we work an extra day at docking or at shearing, that’s nothing compared with what the cadets are getting out of it.”
Despite the benefits the technology brings, Evans says Smedley doesn’t want to turn its back on animal assessment by eye. “We’re practically-based and want to train cadets to draft by eye. We don’t want them to rely on pushing a button. A mixture of both is good.”
One of the growing trends at Smedley is cadets going on to university after their two-year stint. As many as half of next year’s graduates may do tertiary study at Lincoln and Massey Universities.
“Exposing them to breeding and genetics technology and to experts at B+LNZ Genetics is inspiring and helps them think about the wide range of options out there.”
Tesing on commercial farms is key
B+LNZ Genetics General Manager Graham Alder says the developments in the Sheep CPT have been spurred on by the success of having commercial farms in the beef progeny testing programme.
“Progeny testing can be improved and the speed of genetic gain increased by upping the numbers of rams tested on real-life commercial farming sites. This is an important part of our strategy for lifting the rate of genetic gain across the industry in both sheep and beef.”
Alder says new technology is critical to making this possible. “Even five years ago, extending central progeny testing to a commercial environment would have been a major challenge from a technological perspective. Further developments in measuring and recording technology – by companies like Tru-Test and Gallagher, along with DNA parentage from Zoetis – allow us to run the programme in commercial flocks.”
*Thanks for FMG for insuring the rams at no cost. www.fmg.co.nz