Ewe efficiency aim of online project

THE NEW ZEALAND FARMERS WEEKLY – www.farmersweekly.co.nz – November 19, 2012

Behind 1000minds

A great example of Kiwi technology and the result of a decade of research and development at the University of Otago, 1000minds was invented by Paul Hansen and Franz Ombler.

The online software, which AbacusBio’s Tim Byrne says will be used to prioritize improvements in ewe efficiency, is used in a wide range of other areas, including prioritizing patients for elective surgery.

“In this project farmers will be asked to consider a series of possible changes for improving ewe efficiency, presented two at a time, and to indicate which is the most important.

“This will generate an overall ranking of all possible improvements for each farmer, which can also be aggregated across all farmers as a group.” Byrne says.

From farmers’ responses, AgResearch’s Grant Shackell and Byrne will get meaningful information they can use to direct the path genetic improvement should take to improve ewe efficiency.

AbacusBio has already used 1000minds to survey the relative importance of traits in the New Zealand dairy industry, the traits that matter to the Australian Merino wool industry and what traits Irish sheep farmers believe are most valuable.

A study using 1000minds also illustrated how Irish dairy farmers view certain production-based traits in terms of their impact on labour.

by Gerard Hall

As land use change forces sheep and lamb finishing on to hill country, the focus is firmly on how to lift ewe efficiency – that is the focus of a new online initiative launching this week.

“The simple fact is that our ewe flocks will have to be as efficient as possible,” AgResearch Invermay scientist Grant Shackell says.

While higher levels of performance are being achieved on hill country as new and emerging technologies are adopted to enhance the sheep flocks’ genetic capabilities and improve managerial skills and feeding levels, there is still a call for better profit margins.

Sheep performance will need to be as good or better on hard country as it is now on the improved lowland pastures being turned over to milk.

The need for sheep to produce more from less means ewe efficiency needs to rise.

“Our industry is moving towards the hills as sheep are being pushed off the high production pasture systems by dairying and other alternate land use options.”

How sheep farmers achieve the required lift in efficiency is the question being tackled by Shackell and his team.

With funding from Ovita (a partnership between Beef + Lamb New Zealand and AgResearch), Shackell’s team, in collaboration with AbacusBio’s Tim Byrne, are launching a major online initiative this week that seeks the views of sheep farmers on the importance ewe efficiency already plays and needs to play in the future sustainability of their business.

As part of the initiative, 1000minds, a University of Otago designed software programme will be used within the NZ sheep industry for the first time.

Several industry studies have identified ewe efficiency as a trait of increasing commercial value. Shackell and his colleagues are eager to find out the importance sheep farmers place on ewe efficiency, what they believe it to be and how it should be defined.

“Efficiency is a complex concept. Views and opinions on what it actually is and how it could be measured differ widely, with several traits involved,” Shackell says.

The Ovita-funded research programme began three years ago. Early on in the project, mature ewe weight and longevity were identified as key components of value-based ewe efficiency.

However, neither a ewe’s mature weight nor the length of time it is in the flock can be measured until later in its life.

Both components were poorly recorded, if recorded at all, by ram breeders.

Since the research programme began, increasing numbers of ram breeders have started recording adult liveweight and body condition score (BCS) in their whole flock rather than just the two-tooth ewes.

Compared to 2009, more than seven times as many SIL flocks are now recording BCS at least once a year, in addition to the more commonly recorded traits - numbers of lamb born, weaning weights, growth rates and traits associated with meat quality and wool.

Ewe efficiency is often commonly defined by the weight of lamb weaned as a proportion of the ewe’s liveweight, usually taken at mating time.

There is certainly more to efficiency than that and the industry will do better if the right components are identified, recorded, evaluated and ewe efficiency is presented in a manner that breeders and commercial farmers can understand.

Byrne says efficiency can also be described as producing more for the same feed eaten, or eating less to produce the same.

On more extensive and harder country where less feed is being grown and harvested, a more efficient ewe flock is of significant economic importance.

The online survey offers all sheep farmers the chance to have their say on ewe efficiency.

The research team is keen to involve as many sheep farmers as possible, contact grant.shackell@ agresearch.co.nz if you’re interested.