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NZ breeding tech set to have increased influence in the UK

New Zealand’s livestock breeding companies are looking to make an even greater impact on UK farms. Emma Penny reports from a trip with New Zealand Trade and Enterprise.

Animal Breeding Services employs more than 30 specialists
Animal Breeding Services employs more than 30 specialists
Sheep and cattle producers in the UK now have more choice if they want to use in vitro production (IVP) for their flocks and herds in future, with the launch of Animal Breeding Europe (AB Europe).

The new company comes from a joining together of current UK breeding specialists headed up by James Mylne and New Zealand company Animal Breeding Services (ABS), which is led by John Hepburn.

Mr Hepburn set up ABS in the 1970s to provide breeding services such as embryo transfer, AI and semen collection, and today it employs more than 30 specialists, with a particular focus on IVP, which can be used in both sheep and cattle.

In cattle, the technique accelerates embryo production from the best donor cows – oocytes (unfertilised eggs) can be collected from the same cow on a weekly basis, rather than the three- to four-week cycle used in MOET. Each session will produce about nine oocytes, giving on average three embryos. A single straw of semen can also be used to inseminate oocytes from five to seven cows with IVP, compared with three straws per donor with MOET.


In sheep, oocytes can be collected every seven to 10 days, with donors initially going to the firm’s Edinburgh base for this, though other bases are being set up. Once collected, oocytes are matured and fertilised in test tubes, with the option of using single or multiple sires. Embryos can then be transferred immediately or frozen and transferred later.

Mr Hepburn says: “For people with high value stock, it is an opportunity to make the most of those animals, and you can also use several sires in one year rather than just one which is a restriction with embryo transfer.”

The AB Europe specialist sheep team will be based in the UK during our breeding season, but will travel to New Zealand and Australia to work in sheep and dairy goats during their breeding season, he adds.

In New Zealand, most dairy cattle breeding now uses IVP as it is a much quicker way to produce genetically superior offspring, and so has the potential to have a much greater financial impact on the whole industry.

A new programme using IVP and breeding bulls from the top 150 heifers each year means a very quick generation interval, while use of genomics means better selection accuracy. “We are not trying to create a ‘super bull’, but to elevate the average of everything. We might be in the background, but we are having a significant impact.”

And while breeding might seem quite ‘mathematical’ now, Mr Hepburn stresses the figures ‘don’t lie’. “They are evidence of what is happening. New Zealand farmers are relying increasingly on performance data, and average farm performance is improving.”

Shift in cow size can boost efficiency

Middle ground milk producers who are neither high input/high output nor the opposite should consider changing their business goals to productivity per cow and per hectare farmed.

Peter Vanelzakker, from the NZ arm of dairy breeding company CRV Ambreed, says farmers in the country are facing a lot of the same issues as those in the UK. They are now working on breeding a different sort of cow, driven by profitability and environmental issues.

“In some parts of New Zealand, councils are looking at putting a cap on cow numbers per hectare to look after waterways. Given the low milk price too, the pressure is really on – farmers need to look at production per cow.”

He says the ‘base dairy animal’ in New Zealand is about 400kg, producing 300-400kg of fat and protein, but a bigger cow, of 400-500kg could produce 450-500kg from grass, grass or maize silage and less than one tonne a year of concentrate.

“These environmental limits means the challenge for farmers is to shift to increasing cow size in a cost-effective way.”

Better use of data

CRV Ambreed says it is pioneering much more precise use of data and genomics to breed better stock.

Currently being trialled on-farm in the US and some European countries, it is looking much more accurately at the genetics of youngstock so the farmers involved can make decisions on which animals are the most efficient and profitable to breed from.

Selecting the best in the herd to breed replacements would mean a much faster rate of genetic progress, while less good cows (the bottom 60 per cent as an example split) could be served with beef semen.

The firm’s Peter Vanelzakker says: “We are collecting a lot of data from the parlour, pedometers and collars from individual animals. The more data we have, the better the validation.”

Making the best of dairy genetics

LIC, which is well established in the UK, is planning to offer farmers a much more in-depth service next year, focusing on how to make the best of the dairy genetics the firm offers.

The firm’s Peter Berney, says its current service in New Zealand, where it provides AI services, herd management and recording, as well as dairy systems through its sister company, DAL, is a ‘complete system for whole farm productivity’.

“We are in the very early days of looking at this in the UK, but if the tools are in place to reduce stress and help decision-making, farmers should have a useful tool for profitability. The UK is not exactly the same asNZ, so we will be customising what we offer to suit the environment.

“The UK has great soils and climate – it has a lot of potential for running seasonal systems very successfully. Seasonal farming is a very specific skillset, but it can withstand price shocks.”

Trade the other way

Trade the other way

Genetics from UK stock could soon be making its way to New Zealand now a new health standard has been agreed.

The agreement means New Zealand can import genetics from the UK and Europe for the first time in many years, says ABS’ John Hepburn.

“We are working closely with our guys in Edinburgh to bring embryos and semen to New Zealand as early as next year.”

The company is currently looking at exporting genetic material from Beltex sheep, milking sheep from France and dairy goats in Yorkshire.

“Our role [as ABS] is to facilitate what people [in New Zealand] want to do,” he says.

Focus on lamb eating quality

Focus on lamb eating quality

Better and more consistent lamb eating quality should be the outcome of rigorous new trials being undertaken on behalf of Focus Genetics, whose genetics are sold in the UK by Innovis.

Speaking at New Zealand’s Fieldays exhibition, company chief Gavin Foulsham said it was working to address the problem of eating quality becoming inconsistent once sheep are more than six months old.

“Consumers want consistency all-year-round, so we have a big push looking at eating quality on the terminal sire side.”

New Zealand’s Crown research body, AgResearch, and red meat intelligence service FarmIQ have worked together to test progeny and link it to eating quality.

“We found even within flocks, there is a lot of variation. However, there is a very strong correlation between specific DNA markers and shear force. Marbling is the key but it is very difficult to see in lamb.”

Eating quality

Selecting terminal sires for better eating quality means Focus Genetics is now beginning to sell eating quality-certified sires, and these will be available in the UK. Currently, available sires are also being tested as part of the programme.

On the maternal side, the company is pushing forward with its Lamb Supreme breed, which it says is the highest yielding breed available in New Zealand. Productivity and robustness are becoming bigger issues in the country as sheep farming is being forced into land unsuitable for dairying.

“It is also making farmers focus on why they are keeping sheep. It has to be for meat production, so that is increasing the focus on use of terminal sites,” says Mr Foulsham. It has also run a campaign to help farmers get lambs straight off their mothers at 18kg to the freezer works, giving ewes time to get back into good condition for tupping.

Focus Genetics is wholly owned by Landcorp, the state-owned farming company in New Zealand. It owns or manages 137 dairy, beef, sheep and deer farms across 376,942 hectares (931,443 acres).

To view the campaign, visit

Breeding facts

  • Sending a ram by air from New Zealand to the UK costs the same as a Business Class seat
  • New Zealand has half as many sheep as it did in the 1970s, when it peaked at 70 million, but it produces the same amount of lamb
  • New Zealand is now breeding physiological normal cattle with gestation lengths which are three weeks shorter to help maintain block calving patterns
  • Finnish Landrace sheep are popular in New Zealand as they are resistant to facial eczema, a big problem


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