Honour for noted sheep breeder

STURDY STOCK: Roger Marshall, right, and stock manager David Kitney with a yarding of kelso rams.
Fairfax NZ
STURDY STOCK: Roger Marshall, right, and stock manager David Kitney with a yarding of kelso rams.

In 1956, 23-year-old romney stud breeder Roger Marshall sold his first rams at the Manawatu and West Coast Ram Fair in Feilding. The Rangitikei Mail reported that when the first ram was knocked down at 1400 guineas after spirited bidding the large bench of buyers broke into spontaneous applause.

"I remember being quite worried because it had rained for several days before the sale, and all my rams had wet wool, but to get 1400 guineas was terrific - that was the price of a new Holden car in those days," the quiet- spoken farmer says. "It was a great incentive for me."

It was a sparkling opening to a career in sheep breeding that eventually took him to the other side of the world in search of new blood to rejuvenate the sheep industry.

The result was the introduction of vigorous new breeds - in particular the texel - that have lifted the industry's performance and meat quality, and brought new wealth to farmers.

His blending of these exotics with domestic breeds culminated in a new breed of sheep, the fecund and meaty kelso that is now found throughout New Zealand and in Victoria, New South Wales and Tasmania.

His almost 60 years as a leading breeder were recognised at the Beef + Lamb Sheep Industry Awards this month when he was named a joint winner of the Farmlands Award for an individual or business making a significant contribution to the sheep industry.

Typically, the gentlemanly Rangitikei farmer plays down his achievements, alleging he has made plenty of mistakes. "Have we made a difference? I hope so," he says with a smile. "It's been enjoyable - a good challenge."

He grew up on Tutu Totara, the farm near Marton that was settled by his great grandfather in 1853, and at first worked for Arthur Wheeler, the eminent romney breeder. When he decided to make his own mark with a stud, he looked to Wheeler's Leedstown stud for a start and it is the influence of this highly regarded strain that he credits with his first sale success.

A year after that sale, his father died suddenly and he found himself head of the family business. He continued with romneys, but in the 60s bought Wheeler's small flock of border leicesters and began to mate the two breeds to produce the new breed being called coopworth after its founder, Lincoln College Professor Ian Coop.

Ever the enquiring mind, he decided to mate border leicester ewes with romney rams rather than the other way round favoured by the professor. The reason for this was the availability of 200 per cent-lambing border ewes to mate to a high- performance-backed romney ram.

By the 1980s, despite the efforts of Coop and other scientists and breeders, the sheep industry had fallen on hard times. In an effort to reinvigorate the industry, geneticist Dr Leyden Baker was asked to go to Scandinavia to study and select from breeds there.

Marshall, by then a director of the Meat Board was asked to go with him. "I suspect some people thought I would be just an 'eyeballer' with little regard for genetics, but we worked very well together and selected some very good sheep," he recalls.

"Because the flocks were very small -- up to 50 ewes and often much less - we selected sheep with good feet and legs as well as good performance records."

They brought back texel, finn and oxford embryos and semen from Finland and Denmark. This was followed a year later by live sheep chosen by Coop.

The new breeds were in quarantine until 1990, some at Marshall's farm and it was while caring for these that he had the idea of melding some into a new breed suitable for New Zealand.

"I wanted a sheep with a high lambing percentage and a high survival rate that grew fast to provide a carcass form that the meat industry would pay a premium for. At the same time I did not want to lose too much wool."

Starting by mating big strong prolific finns to his coopworths and performance-recorded romneys and then adding meaty, active texels, it took him five years of mating ewe and ram hoggets to see the start of the new breed he named the kelso.

Twenty years on, the breed is now stabilised and recognised as a valuable hill country breed. It continues to evolve and now includes a terminal sire, the ranger.

Marshall built a business around it, also named Kelso, and has passed on ownership to son David and Central Hawke's Bay farmer Matt Holden. The breeding flock is run on Holden's farm, on hills close to the Ruahines.

Marshall began mating hoggets in 1970, well before it became fashionable. "I was probably thought to be a bit eccentric," he says. "I airfreighted some coopworth hoggets down to Christchurch to be mated at Sir William Dunlop's farm, then flew them back. In those days we weren't allowed to truck that distance."

He is pleased with the kelso's progress. The first objective, high fecundity, has been achieved and its high meat yield and growth rate has given it a high ranking among dual purpose sheep in the Central Progeny Test.

A licence to export embryos to China has also been granted.

The Kelso business has spent $40,000 on its own trials on lamb survival and has joined others on yield grading at Progressive meatworks at Napier, gene marker research at Ovita in Dunedin, genetic identification at Abacus Biotech, Dunedin and in cold tolerance and longevity at Lincoln University.

Over the years, Kelso has received help and encouragement from Professor Al Rae and Bob Barton at Massey and for the last 15 years it has had a close relationship with AbacusBiotech.

Looking back, Marshall says the introduction of exotic breeds has done just what was intended - it has given a great stimulus, he says.

The next big leap forward will not be long in coming, he says "The discovery of crucial gene markers will bring improvements in sheep health, meat quality and productivity. I expect that this will be rewarded by meat companies who will make payments according to the size of the most valuable cuts."

He feels New Zealand's farming future is in good hands. "It is gratifying to see that what has evolved from innovations like the introduction of the exotic breeds is the tremendous number of younger people running farms who regard sheep farms as efficient factories.

"Matt Holden relates well to this group, and has made and continues to make a great contribution to the ongoing success of the kelso breed."

-NZ Farmer