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  • Falling prices and demand for wool led scientists at AgResearch to develop an easy care sheep that is more efficient to farm and brings better returns.

    High wool value influences early sheep breeds in New Zealand

    In the early years of sheep farming in New Zealand and in the post-war period, farmers received good returns for meat and wool. The Romney was a dominant breed because it thrived in New Zealand conditions and was good for producing lambs and heavy fleeces. With the high value of wool in these times, farmers selected sheep to grow wool ‘from the nose to the toes’, thinking a heavier fleece would bring higher returns.

    Rights: Public domain

    Traditional Romney sheep

    Romney sheep are an important breed in New Zealand. Traditionally, they were selected to grow wool ‘from the nose to the toes’.

    Wool demand and prices fall

    In the early 1970s, overseas demand for wool began to fall and returns dropped. Wool faced competition from synthetic fibres, and production costs increased for farmers. Government subsidies kept farmers afloat through this time keeping sheep numbers stable, but when subsidies were removed in the 1980s, farmers began looking for ways to increase efficiency.

    Some changed their focus to meat production and began to consider that breeds of sheep with less wool might be more cost-effective. Find out more about New Zealand sheep farming: changing influences.

    Rights: Acknowledgement: Tyrrell Photographic Collection, Powerhouse Museum

    Traditional Merino sheep

    Merino sheep, another popular New Zealand breed, were traditionally bred with wrinkly skin to increase the surface area of skin so they grew more wool.

    Too much wool adds production costs

    Wool on some parts of the sheep such as the backside, face and belly is a problem for farmers because it requires extra procedures such as dagging and crutching, adding to production costs. Most of the wool in these areas also has lower value because it’s shorter and dirtier. The article, Easy care sheep traits has further information on what is an easy care sheep.

    The Merino, another popular breed in New Zealand bred mainly for its fine wool, was also selected for good wool coverage and, in addition, wrinkly skin. Wrinkly skin increased the surface area of skin and produced more wool. However, it also added more problems for the farmer. It was more difficult to shear, more susceptible to flystrike and the pelts had less value for leather making.

    More wool on a sheep and wrinkly skin also reduce sheep fertility, and lambs grow more slowly.

    Easy care sheep concept evolves

    Awareness of these issues led Dr David Scobie and his team at AgResearch in the 1990s to embark on a research programme to breed more cost-effective sheep using selective breeding techniques. Their aim was to remove all the unnecessary parts of the sheep and fleece to create sheep that were more productive and easier and cheaper to maintain – ‘easy care’ sheep.

    Easy care sheep are faster to shear and have improved fleece quality. Although they produce 20% less wool, most of the wool that’s removed in breeding the easy care sheep is lower value wool. The sheep have short tails that don’t need docking and are less likely to require chemical treatment for flystrike. Eliminating these procedures, which are painful for sheep, improves their welfare. Easy care sheep also have improved fertility and grow faster.

    These new traits change the physical appearance of the sheep considerably and may challenge people’s traditional views of what sheep should look like.

    Developing easy care sheep

    Falling wool prices initiated the idea of breeding easy care sheep with less wool in some areas. Here, Dr David Scobie explains how the research began.

    Easy care sheep benefits

    Easy care sheep were developed to lower costs and improve sheep welfare. AgResearch’s Dr David Scobie describes how easy care sheep traits meet these objectives and explains the benefits.

    Possible ethical and future issues

    While the benefits of easy care sheep are well researched and easy to identify, it’s difficult to predict with certainty how these new traits may impact on sheep in the long term. While there can be unforeseen outcomes, scientists do consider possible risks, such as the effect of exposing more skin, and weigh these against the benefits.

    Sheep breeding and biodiversity

    Will breeding easy care sheep affect biodiversity? Dr David Scobie from AgResearch answers this question.

    An update on easy care sheep

    Dr Scobie's research programme finished after 13 years. In March 2014, 140 wool-less Wiltshire sheep and 224 low cost easy care sheep were sold to breeders and commercial farmers. Although Dr Scobie and his team set out to breed sheep that were more cost effective in terms of shearing and flystrike, there were additional benefits. The sheep wean more lambs and have better growth rates – energy that previously went into wool production and fighting parasites now goes into weight gain.

    Possible risks of easy care sheep

    Some possible risks associated with easy care sheep are discussed in this interview with Dr David Scobie of AgResearch.

      Published 18 July 2010, Updated 14 March 2018 Referencing Hub articles
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