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Learning efficiency lessons in NZ from large-scale farms


Researching how to manage large-scale breeding programmes in beef and sheep, Perthshire farmer Neil McGowan is travelling to North America and New Zealand as part of his 2015 Nuffield Scholarship. Aly Balsom asks him what it is he is hoping to learn during his tour.

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Monitoring intakes in beef cattle is one area Neil McGowan hopes to learn more about in the US.
Monitoring intakes in beef cattle is one area Neil McGowan hopes to learn more about in the US.

Q: Your Nuffield travels are taking you across the globe to look at different breeding systems. Why did you decide to get off the farm and look abroad?


I thought it was about time I went out and pinched some more ideas – I went to New Zealand about 17 years ago and picked up a lot at the time.

I originally had a flock of cross-bred ewes, but after I visited New Zealand I realised I could make more progress by having a pure animal.

I started by breeding a composite, but during this process I came across the Lleyn and it out-performed the composite. The ewes were smaller, which kept costs down, and they still produced two good lambs.

The key principle from my New Zealand trip was to produce a ewe which did the job herself. Sheep can be really productive without a lot of fuss and this is what I saw in New Zealand.

We have all got easy care sheep, but we never notice them as they quietly work away in the background. We want to find these animals and multiply them in the flock.

Things have moved on a lot since we started the breeding programme about 15 years ago, so I want to go back to New Zealand and take our system to the next level. The aim is to produce woolly, productive animals which can be sent into the industry, taking the genetic benefit with them.


Q: Your pedigree Lleyn flock is already nationally recognised, so what are you specifically looking to improve in the flock?

I want to look at how breeders manage to cope with recording sheep flocks of 20,000 or 30,000 head and what benefits are in all the data. I specifically want to see how they record and select for parasite resistance.

We have made big progress in our flock as we have been doing faecal egg counts for 10 years. When we dung sampled 30 Lleyn rams 10 years ago, we noticed high egg counts on all lambs sired by one ram, while another’s offspring produced almost no eggs. It is about building genetic profiles in the flock and this comes down to sire selection.

This is part of making sheep a better lifestyle choice. Obviously there is also a need to limit the use of anthelmintics and preserve their use for the future.


Neil McGowan


Q: So it is all about improving efficiencies. How are you trying to do the same in the beef side of your business?


In cattle, I want to look at feed conversion traits. I think how we sell bulls over here needs to change.

We cannot go on feeding bulls to look as fat as the next guy’s – we need to look at other options. I want to look at feed conversion from forage as a way of building a marketing message so I can sell bulls on-farm in a similar way to how I sell sheep.

I have just come back from three weeks in North America where I looked at GrowSafe Systems. They produce the feed intake system used in the UK Stabiliser feed conversion trial.

They are looking at ways to measure intakes at grass. Water intake is linked to feed intake so they are doing a trial to see if they can get a correlation with grazing intakes.


Q: How might UK beef selection change in the future?


I do not think the beef industry has been looking at inputs enough. We have been looking at production traits for too long. We need to look at whether we can reduce the intakes needed to finish cattle. Our costs are the only thing we can really control.


Q: You are heading back to New Zealand in November. As well as worm resistance, what else are you going to look at while you are over there?


New Zealand has a big central progeny testing system which involves a number of commercial flocks. It is a way to get linkage between flocks and breeds and increase the accuracy of estimated breeding values.

I am interested in breeder collaboration. I think we could learn a lot from this over here and get better at working together and sharing information between breeders. Working alone you can sometimes go faster, but working together you can go further.
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