Breeding pioneer altered face of farming

Holmes Warren holds a wired-up circle of old bones. They are the pelvic bones of a romney ewe long since killed in the name of science.

He curls a brown work-lined hand into a fist and pokes it through the gap. "See how much room there is?"

He picks up a second pelvic circle and tries again. This time the fist won't fit. "This one had to be assisted to lamb," he says. By assisted, he means the lamb had to be pulled through the small circle.

The bones come from ewes killed 40 years ago to discover the physical markers of easy-care sheep - ewes that can be left on their own to deliver their lambs and raise them without mishap.

In 1970, that was a radical concept. On almost all farms, assisted births were the norm and many ewes had to be tied to fences so they could not desert their lambs.

Mr Warren did not accept that. Already one of the first to use lambing data to identify highly fertile sheep, by 1970 he had lifted his lambing percentage at docking to an impressive 133 per cent.

But that was achieved with assistance - the lambing beat, where he and his staff patrolled the paddocks looking for ewes in difficulty. So he went looking for the easy-care sheep among his flock on Turanganui, his South Wairarapa farm.

Harsh measures were needed. He put a quarter of the romney stud flock on the hills and for the next 14 years left them to lamb alone. Any that did not rear a lamb were sold.

In the rest of the flock, any ewe that had to be assisted was sent to the meat works. If their lamb survived, it was grown out and also killed.

From this, three free-lambing family lines were discovered that became the backbone of today's flock.

Examination of the pelvic circles of the slaughtered ewes showed why some had difficulties and others did not. Mr Warren was able to get a picture of what an easy-care ewe should look like.

"It starts in the shoulders; they can't be too bulky," he says. His brow creases in thought and his faded blue eyes glaze and look inward as he visualises the ideal sheep. "The top of the shoulder blades must be below the backline and the shoulders must blend into the rib cage."

He reaches for a notepad. "The hind legs have got to have the correct geometry." He draws a sloping Z shape with the angles at hip and hock. "If those legs are too straight they need more energy to walk or climb the hills to graze."

He remembers 35 years ago following a mob of hoggets along the 11-kilometre journey to his hill block. "After five miles, I noticed quite a few lagging at the back. I had a piece of raddle with me so I marked them. Three months later when I drove them back, they were at the back again. I realised they were too thick in the shoulder - they got the heave-ho."

This single-minded determination to improve the productivity of his flock has driven Mr Warren for more than 60 years as a romney breeder. Part of the spur has been financial - 40 years ago more than half his farm's income was from ram sales - but it is a success the nation has benefited from.

He is held in the highest regard among sheep breeders as one of the biggest influencers of the shape, fertility and hardiness of the modern romney. This was recognised in 1992 with an MBE for services to the sheep industry, an honour he insists was not his alone but was also due to his fellow members of the Wairarapa Romney Improvement Group.

Now 82, with ownership of Turanganui handed over to son Michael 16 years ago, Mr Warren still keeps an active interest in the farm and the flock.

He looks more than 10 years younger than his age, has an acute memory, a head for figures and is a walking advertisement for hip replacements.

"There's still life in the old dog," he says with a chuckle. "I'm useful round the farm; I do quite a bit of tractor work and I'm still involved with selling rams. When there's nothing to do, I go out and grub thistles."

The Turanganui romney stud began 103 years ago at Pirinoa with Mr Warren's grandfather, also Holmes. Mr Warren's father, David, died in 1944 and Mr Warren took over in 1948, aged 19.

He inherited a flock of 500 stud ewes with a lambing percentage of 100 per cent to 105 per cent - "and you worked your butt off to get that".

It was the time of the wool boom and studs selected animals on size and fleece weight, judged by eye alone. No account was taken of the number of lambs produced, their survival or weight.

Mr Warren reasoned that if he could lift lambing percentages, sheep farming would be more profitable and farmers would come back to him to buy more rams.

At the same time, fertiliser top- dressing was lifting pasture quality on the hills and about 10 per cent of his clients were keen to get more fertile sheep.

But fertility has a low inheritance and he made slow going. Then he had a visit from Massey University professor Al Rae, a world-recognised geneticist, who introduced a system of recording lambing details. He began to find which were his most productive families and the flock's lambing percentage began to rise.

By 1960 it was at 130 per cent and it continued to rise in slow steps.

In 1967, wool prices crashed and Turanganui suddenly found its rams in hot demand. "The accent swung on to meat production and farmers were wanting more lambs. I decided that if I didn't advertise, someone else who hadn't done the work I had would beat me to it."

He found a ready market for his stud rams at $1500-$1600 each among the 1200 other romney studs, selling 40-50 a year. His commercial rams averaged about $80 each, but he sold 1000 of those a year. Today, he and Michael sell 1000 rams annually to 150 clients, half of them in the South Island, from $450 to $1050.

The next step was to develop easy-care sheep. "I had a high lambing percentage but I was having to assist too many. That wasn't sustainable."

Once the lambs were born, mothering ability was also an essential trait and this was added to the selection process. It is now the trait Turanganui is most well- known for.

Mr Warren describes it as a two-way street, with both ewe and lambs having the instinct to stick together. "I saw it demonstrated so well at docking time a few years ago in a paddock with 25 ewes, all with triplets at foot. Each ewe and their three lambs were still all together as they were being herded into the docking pen."

Progress was made cautiously, however, with Mr Warren not wanting to sacrifice the gains already made in fertility.

Production records were becoming more essential and when the Agriculture Department launched the first computerised recording system in 1969, Turanganui was one of its first users. It has stayed through a series of upgrades to the system's present incarnation as Sheep Improvement.

In 1970, a further chance to advance came with the formation, with neighbour Bill Hume, of Gleniti Romneys, and Wairere Stud owner John Daniell, of the Wairarapa Romney Improvement Group. "The needs of the commercial farmer weren't being met by the Romney Association, which was being run like an exclusive club. They laughed at us at first, but in the end we and others took most of the commercial business."

By sharing genetics among the group, which quickly expanded to eight farmers, its members began to make quicker progress in developing easy-care sheep. The group is still thriving, with its members mainly the sons of the originals.

THE 1980s are usually remembered as a tough time for farming, when the loss of incentive payments for increased stock numbers saw many farmers forced to leave the land. But Mr Warren says it was "the best thing that has ever happened".

"It meant the stocking rate was reduced to a level where ewes were better fed so they could lift the lambing percentage."

The Wairarapa group members' rams were needed for this renaissance and peak sales of 5000 a year were reached. Through most of the 1980s, Turanganui's lambing percentage reached the heights of 165 per cent.

However, in the 1990s, as meat became more important, Mr Warren put more emphasis on growth rate and weaning weights, which had the effect of dropping the percentage back to the low 150s.

At 165 per cent a special effort had to be made to look after an increased number of triplets and this came with a cost, he recalls. "Commercial farmers couldn't cope with that and we scaled it back to what we found to be the most profitable level."

In recent years, droughts have become more common and every effort is made to hold the condition of the capital stock. The animals are fed silage and some barley and centre-pivot irrigation keeps 200 hectares of pasture growing.

The extra stress is a way of finding which animals cope the best, and those that don't are culled. Turanganui sheep are noted for their ability to recover quickly from adversity.

The farm now has 4500 ewes, 2000 ewe hoggets and 1900 ram hoggets. Each year, 1700 two-tooth ewes are kept as replacements and 28 per cent of the ram lambs are sold. The best ewes are kept till they can no longer produce lambs. Age is not a barrier, many living to eight or nine and a few even up to 12.

They select on structural soundness, fertility (a ewe that delivers a single lamb is given only one more chance to do better), lamb survival, mothering ability, weaning and growth rates (lambs wean at 34-35 kilograms at 100 days, finish easily at 18kg carcass weight and can go to 24kg if the market wants them), parasite resilience and wool (7kg of wool per sheep wintered).

They are mindful of Professor Rae's dictum not to be swayed by trends, but to let the sheep type develop itself.

"As I've learnt what type of sheep is performing best I've explained it to the clients," Mr Warren says.

"I remember when I first found the best easy-care sheep. I put three of them in a paddock behind the yards the day two brothers came down from the East Coast to choose rams. As soon as they saw those three they said, 'That's what we want'.

"They knew from their own experience what mustered well, reared good lambs and gave the least trouble.

"They were forward-thinking. We've always attracted that sort of people.

"There's a lot of capable people out there. If you can get them thinking and their opinions coming back, then you get a cumulative effect building up and pushing you in a general direction."

These days, paddock data loggers have replaced field notebooks and bar code printers and readers have made recording of lamb and fleece weights easier. Electronic ear tags and automated drafting speed up the sorting of mobs of ewes for mating and rams for sale.

They are also working closely with Lincoln University to incorporate its newly developed cold tolerance gene and lameness gene marker tests into selections of sires.

Mr Warren is not one to overestimate his achievements. He says simply, "It's taken a long time, but I am confident the romney now available is able to contribute to the meat industry's production and welfare."

Then he adds, "and there's more to come". Turanganui's lambing percentage has settled at about 150 per cent - measured as survival to sale of lambs to ewes mated - but he sees more gains to be made in growth rates.

Further progress could also come in defining what produces meat colour, taste and tenderness.

"I saw a mob go in the yards the other day. Half of them immediately settled down and were calmly chewing their cud. They've got the disposition that is likely to give us that superior eating quality."

It's a sign of an active mind, but ever-practical. "Those traits will most likely be found on the dna strand, but it is high-cost. So there has to be a price rise to match."

His gaze shifts to the 40-year-old bone circles on the table beside him. "Our job as breeders is to use the useful parts of what nature has to offer - that goes for everything, grasses as well as animals - but you've got to have the ability to find them.

"It has to be matched with patience. Don't go haring off after one part and forget about the others. Slow and steady wins the race."

The Dominion Post