THE NUMBERS THAT ARE CHANGING THE INDUSTRY
Some numbers mean something once they’re joined together.
Cleardale 171230 is his actual name, and he’s a freak. Well he’s actually a sheep, but his numbers are freakish.
Sheep genetics has just done an update of their Australasian Fine Wool database, and after having a quick look at 1230’s numbers I thought it would be interesting to tell his story…
It started back when John Brakenridge was looking to increase the supply of fine wool in New Zealand, and had the idea to breed a finer fleece on the crossbred sheep we already have — The Sheep Transformation project (NZSTX) is born. Part of that project is breeding a fine wool sheep that exhibits crossbred performance. At the same time as this was going on, we were experimenting in the space ourselves. There was a group of farmers who got together to set up a breeding scheme and consequently Southern Cross Sheep was born. We also replicated this program at Cleardale so that when the animals came out of it, we would be well placed to utilize any suitable genetics.
But let’s go back a step. In the late 1980s there was a fine wool boom and this idea had already been trialed and failed. So what were the lessons then, and how could we overcome them now? One of the main problems was that the fine wool sheep got all manner of diseases, particularly footrot. So we had to make the sheep resistant to this cruel disease and found a property to run them where they would be challenged for footrot.
At this stage we had no proven means to make progress on this trait. We didn’t really know how heritable it was in fine wool sheep and also whether or not resistance to footrot would have any negative correlations with positive production traits.
Helping us in all this was Australian geneticist Dr Mark Ferguson. He had a mate, a self-described ‘tightfisted wanker’ from Western Australia, so he came to see us and we signed a JV with four lines in an email, to use his genetics over our half-bred ewes and breed this dual purpose fine wool ram that we were seeking. Thommo (David Thompson) had been breeding meaty, plain bodied merino for some time and his stud, Moojepin, was leading the Australasian industry in these traits.
As this was going on the New Zealand merino industry was working together to develop a breeding value for footrot. Tens of thousands of feet were inspected for the disease under various challenge conditions and these data sets were analysed to look at the heritability of footrot. A progeny test was set up to compare genetics from a range of fine wool sires, with one of the key objectives being to objectively challenge the progeny for footrot, which would help to inform the breeding values as they were developed. This work was supported by both government and industry.
In 2014 Moojepin 652 and Moojepin 319 semen were used over 400 of our finer half-bred ewes.
From this mating two formative progeny were born.
AB 74 a son of 652 and AC 347 a daughter of 319. AB 74 was selected to be used as a hogget and was mated to a Southern Cross half Melrose dam, and gave birth to SX 634. AC 347 was mated as a hogget and proceeded to rear twins.
We used SX 634 over quarter-bred ewes in 2016 and 2017, and in the 2017 mating he went to Cleardale AC 347. From this mating we got our mate 1230, an incredible outcome just three years into a group breeding scheme.
I can remember the day in 2018 when we were looking to class the rams for mating. The good Dr Ferguson came out, excited that SX 634 had bred so well in the group breeding scheme, especially for footrot resistance. We got the rams in and couldn’t find 634 anywhere, until the shepherd who’d got them in pulled a tag from his pocket. SX 634 had just died in the paddock and our hearts sank.
The only thing to do was select some of his best sons and use them. On first inspection 1230 hadn’t made the grade, but because he was a triplet we looked closer. We realised his brother was in the top group too. The next selection step is to check the mother’s background and we saw that this dam had reared twins as a hogget, twins as a two-tooth and then triplets, so we knew we had to use at least one of her sons. After a bit of mucking around Ferg and I settled on 1230.
And the rest they say, is history for this ram will take some years to be bettered. That’s how much of a freak he really is… Though not the prettiest, he is super sound footed and for a great number of traits he's in the top 1% of the Australasian Fine Wool database. For some traits he's close to, if not the top animal.
With a micron breeding value of only 3 microns above the average, it’s very rare to have this combination of traits. Growth, carcass, disease resistance and fertility all in one package, which is why he starts getting the ‘freak’ status.
We nearly lost the old boy to an aggressive foot abscess, but he eventually responded to treatment and now we keep him close.
He has been used widely at Cleardale and within the wider industry. Ferg advised me to not sell 1230’s semen to protect our advantage, while advising his other clients to use him, however we decided that he was too good to keep to ourselves and it was worth raising the industry standard together. Prior to the 2022 lambing he had 580 progeny across eight flocks.