Stockmanship is an underrated gift

 Sheep farming and breeding maestro Gordon Levet discusses what it means to have the gift of stockmanship.

Northland sheep breeding veteran Gordon Levet.

Northland sheep breeding veteran Gordon Levet.

OPINION: Stockmanship is a term commonly used in livestock farming circles, but rarely used by scientists and those working in the academic fields of agriculture. 

Farmers will often refer to another farmer or shepherd - male or female - as having great stockmanship skills, or conversely, is a poor stockman. 

Farmers and others dealing with livestock, like stock agents, know exactly what is meant by the term.  However, I believe many scientists, farm advisers and those working in the academic areas of agriculture, may well be mystified by the term, what it embraces and whether it is of any significance. 

A sheep shows thick upper lip, and no rose pink colour around the eye indicating high levels of barber's pole worm.

A sheep shows thick upper lip, and no rose pink colour around the eye indicating high levels of barber's pole worm.

It may well be considered a quaint old term that has no relevance in today's world of science and technology.  Over my lifetime, I cannot recall seeing any articles on stockmanship skill or what it encapsulates.

Most humans are born with a variety of natural skills which will be linked with their genetic makeup.  The level of a particular skill will vary greatly between individuals.   For example, in sport, some people are naturally gifted, and will excel in the sport of their choosing.  Others will be hopeless in all sports, while the majority of us will fall into the category of being above or below average.

In my experience, people who are gifted in one area are often below par in another area.  As a general rule people who are gifted in practical skills, often fall short in academic abilities, and vice versa.  We often see people without any academic qualifications, succeeding in business, especially where practical skills are required, such as engineering, contracting, farming and the trades.

Stockmanship is a rather nebulous talent which is fully understood by those who possess it, but is probably a mystery to many others to the point of disbelief that such a skill exists at all.

Let me try to describe those abilities which I believe a good stockman or woman will possess and which set them apart from others.

- When looking at a mob of sheep or cattle of the same age and breed, a stockman will see many different animals forming a mob.  Others will see a mob of animals that are all the same.

- Take one ewe from a mob of 400-500, give a stockman 20 seconds to observe that animal, then return it to the mob.  Return an hour later - or a day later – and a top stockman will find that animal in a relatively short time.

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Stockmen are invariably good judges of the physical attributes of an animal; are able to see its strengths and weaknesses; recognise the degree of seriousness of a fault, and note the indicators that may reflect a weakness of constitution.  All this will take only a matter of seconds.

A stockman will be proactive, rather than reactive.  In other words he/she will see  the subtle signs that indicate that a health problem is imminent, rather than only act after the problem is obvious, by which time considerable damage may have occurred .

While travelling over the farm the stock and their behaviour will be casually observed.  Any even slightly unusual behaviour will be noticed.  It could be a sheep twitching or stamping a foot.  Immediately a stockman will recognise a potential problem – possibly flystrike - and check the mob.  In pneumonia-prone areas over the February/March period, a stockman may see a lone lamb beside a fence, back slightly arched, head and ears drooping and generally looking lethargic and hollow and will immediately recognise the symptoms of pneumonia (lambs with this disease are seldom found lying down).

- Also while moving over the farm, the stockman will note the quality and length of the pasture sward and future movement of stock considered.

- The shifting or yarding of stock will be carried out efficiently, ensuring no stress is placed on the mob.

In regions where the barber's pole worm is a problem, a top stockman will note the symptoms indicating the presence of this parasite - sheep that are lethargic and trailing at the rear of the mob or have a thick upper lip or swelling under the lower jaw, which indicates the animal is near death as a result of this blood-sucking worm.

- Invariably good stockmen have an empathy with animals and this results in animals being relaxed in their presence.  This trait is most noticeable in top horse trainers, where even wild horses will quickly learn to trust and respond to their trainer.

I could go on, as there are many other stock skills and pasture management abilities which a good stockman will possess.  However, there is another side to the coin.

-   Stockmen are seldom skilled and often show no interest in things mechanical (in my own case I am far happier digging a post hole or crutching a sheep than driving a tractor).

- Putting pen to paper or studying an animal's production figures – and understanding their relevance – is not generally a stockman's forte.

Most stockmen would be unlikely to use condition-scoring or pasture budgeting and dry matter assessments as a tool of management, but rather use visual assessments.

Stockmen tend to be reserved and seldom accept leadership roles in community affairs.

When selecting sires, be they rams or bulls, a stockman will tend to concentrate on the physical factors which indicate structural soundness, and trust the breeder to present animals with acceptable production records.  Conversely, the more academic-type farmers, and consultants, will generally concentrate on the production figures, and give scant attention to the physical attributes of an animal.

Some time ago, I discussed this subject with Holmes Warren, who would have sold tens of thousands of rams to clients for more than 60 years.  He commented that buyers who paid particular attention to the records were often less confident when it came to the physical merits of an animal.

Over many years, I have been very aware of complaints from farm managers and shepherds about the standard of sires that their superiors – or advisers - have chosen for their breeding programmes. 

Invariably these complaints have been that the sires supplied were not physically sound, which often happens when production figures are the only criteria in selection programmes.  One instance quoted was that some of the ewe flock could not travel a reasonable distance and just kept lying down. 

Obviously they inherited physical faults from their unsound sires and maybe dams.  Often those in control of breeding programmes are employed because of academic qualifications.  However, they may have little or no practical experience, and know little of stockmanship skills. 

I would urge those in control of breeding programmes to acknowledge that others may possess abilities that they do not have, and bring them – the managers - into the loop when selecting sires for the flock or herd.  Quite apart from anything else it would be a good PR exercise, and show managers that they are an important part of a successful farming operation.

I realise this article is full of generalities and am very aware that there are always exceptions to any general statement. Sure, there are top stockmen who also have an excellent understanding of production figures, and their importance.  Holmes Warren would be an excellent example of being a top stockman with an eye for quality and the ability to use all the production data currently available.

While some may disagree with the sentiments I have expressed, if my efforts create thinking and discussion I will be amply rewarded.

- Gordon Levet is a Northland life-long romney breeder renowed for developing a worm-resistant strain of sheep. He received the Royal Agricultural Award in 2008 and in 2012 was awarded a Certificate of Achievement in the senior section of the New Zealander of the Year.


 - Stuff


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