Tough love helps in selective breeding
David Giddings feels the tide is turning in his favour on his central South Island hill-country romney and angus stud, but it has been a while coming.
The Fairlie farmer says it has taken time for his clients to understand his breeding strategies and to support his on- farm sales.
He is known for his strong views on using only Kiwi-bred bulls for his Meadowslea angus stud and for producing livestock suited to marginal hill country. With less land available to fatten stores, more farmers have to fatten their own on their poorer country and still make a profit, he says.
"Many of those guys have to wonder who will buy their store stock in the future."
Sheep and cattle that can survive and perform in such country is where the future of sheep and beef genetics lies, he says.
The correlation between genetics and the effect of the farm environment on performance is known as epigenetics.
He believes animals bred in tough conditions activate "triggers" that switch on survival and other beneficial genes in their offspring to allow them to survive and perform. Those genes are then passed on to future generations.
As more cattle and sheep are pushed onto marginal hill country and expected to perform, the survival gene "trigger" is doubly important.
"We say it's observing what nature is throwing at you and breeding the animals it's selecting."
He decided 20 years ago, in anticipation of changes in land use because of dairying, to depart from breeding his traditional highly fed romney sheep on the home farm and send them up onto the hills. This involved buying a 420ha high country property to test his theories.
"I remember a lot of romney guys saying I was mad. They said my top ewes might die up there. And some of them did, but they have been unshepherded since then and have got the survival gene in them."
Although exotic sheep have been added to the stud, the romney component is still important.
"During the last 20 years the sheep industry has seen positive gains through selective breeding where lambing percentages and yields have risen and farmers understand specifics of breeding and are very choosy about the kind of sheep they want for their environment," he says.
"One of the good things about sheep is the quick turnaround in genetics if farmers want to change, but with cattle it takes years to see the differences." The number of rams sold at Mr Giddings' on-farm auctions has increased over the years. At the last sale, in November, 90 farmers bought 230 rams.
At the annual Mackenzie basin calf sales in Temuka for the last two years, 70 to 80 per cent of the angus and angus-cross calves offered came from properties using Meadowslea bulls.
He says that nationally, the gains in beef performance are lagging in spite of a big investment in genetics.
He belongs to a group of farmers who are studying angus estimated breeding values and asking if the genetics are doing what they are meant to.
"Calving percentages and slaughter weights have hardly changed over the years and I question whether the new genetics are working," he says.
"There are some controversial issues in Breedplan, which is like a bible for some people. There is this investment in high-powered Australian and American genetics set to finish to big weights but they don't work here in our environment."
Meadowslea cows and heifers are sent up to the tussock and to a neighbouring native property to winter without supplements. "Given the conditions they winter in, our cows need to store the equivalent in energy on their backs in the form of fat. They can store up to 3000 kilojules of energy [the equivalent in feed of two bales of balage] on their back when they go onto the hills. When they come down off the hills they have to be in good condition to get in calf on their first cycle and produce a good early calf annually for 10 years."
The angus stud started with the purchase of some Turihau pure New Zealand-bred cows in 1985, and as their progeny have come through they have proven to be outstanding and well-suited to the direction Mr Giddings wants to take the herd.
Among his top bulls is Turihau Crump, which he paid $20,000 for, and Meadowslea 540. "They encompass everything we preach." Mr Giddings says he is always looking to buy new bulls but it is difficult to find bulls with strong New Zealand genetics.