Heriot farmer Allan Richardson is using his long-term market vision to help develop a high performing, low input sheep – topped off with a short, bare tail.
Inspired by the work of Dr David Scobie, who at the time was working at AgResearch to design the ultimate sheep, Richardson decided he wanted to create his own ultimate sheep. In 2004, he began working on the Avalon Genetics ultimate.
“We were already down that track really by default because we had perendales and texels, and we had wiltshires and some of them had the bareness traits that he already had. So for us it was a natural progression,” Allan says.
The key traits of Richardson’s ultimate sheep are: a bare breech and belly, a short, bare tail, and retained fleece wool, without the oddments.
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When the development began, Richardson enlisted the help of Scobie to advise.
“The short tail wasn’t actually on the radar at that stage, it was just the bare belly and the bare bum so we didn’t have to dag them. The tail came later because it was just so heritable, and it just made sense.”
Since the initially trialling there have been many refinements to the sheep. It has been a lot of trial and error, Richardson says.
Out of that has come the ultimate.
The sheep are made up of a half to five-eighths texel and the remainder is a balance of perendale and a touch of finn.
“We sourced sheep from throughout New Zealand that had the traits we were looking for, particularly the short tail and the bareness.”
A long-term sight of what the market is going to require, and a desire to combat the fact that farming was not getting any easier or profitable, made Richardson want to work towards a solution.
“Some of the things that we can attack are the things we’ve got some control over – sheep that you didn’t have to dag or tail or had a bare belly. You’re taking a lot of the work out of the sheep.”
Taking some of the tough work out of sheep farming is a high priority at Avalon. The 1250 hectare effective sheep and beef operation is fully organic.
“We’re organic and we’re under a maximum one lifetime drench anyway. So we wanted a sheep that could stay clean under that environment and do all those things but still clip a fleece of wool.”
Richardson still believes the wool industry has a future, a belief which shied him away from the wiltshire breed.
Richardson calls the ultimate a three-horizon animal: one selected for performance and multi-disease resistance.
Avalon has been selecting for worm resistance for the past 30 years but is also looking for animals with facial eczema resistance as well as lice and flystrike.
“Traditional farming you blanket treat everything and you never get to see which animals are the winners and the losers. That’s the key – the winners and the losers.”
Richardson believes the industry should be looking towards less chemical inputs in animals, because it gives the opportunity for the “losers” in the team be be treated, protected and perform well.
“You’re breeding from animals that in nature wouldn’t survive.”
Tail length and wool is highly heritable and something that can be achieved quickly, Richardson says.
“We actually want a tail where the wool peels off the tail as well so there’s no way it gets daggy.”
He is now working to get those genes throughout the entire flock.
At this stage, Richardson has about 400 ultimate stud ewes. He is using them as a terminal and a maternal, going over 5000 perendale ewes.
“The big picture for me is having a whole flock of ultimates that we don’t have to drench, dag, tail, that we don’t have to do much with.”
Richardson also points out that tail docking may soon be a thing of the past. The Netherlands has already banned the practice.
“That would be a major welfare issue if people all of a sudden weren’t able to dock their tails because you’d have flystrike and everything … what we are trying to do here is future-proof ourselves, down the track if something like that does happen we’re prepared for it.”
But not docking tails has had an added health benefit for the ultimate ewes, with very little to no bearings in the animals, Richardson says.
“It’s basically because they’re keeping that tail, they keep the muscle control.”
For the average farmer that’s a $20-30,000 loss potential each year, he says.
While having less work to do with the sheep is a benefit, Richardson is also reaping financial benefits as well.
With the returns from sheep falling, he says farmers need to be able to save every dollar they can.
“We need sheep that can work harder with less input, less labour. But we’ve also got the potential to get more out of the marketplace.”
The animal health costs for Richardson’s ultimates are below $1.50 a stock unit, he says.
A daggy ewe lamb will stay daggy over her lifetime and may need up to 17 crutchings over her lifetime costing an extra $17 a head. They have short tailed ultimate lambs that are never dagged, he says.
“With the high levels of worm resistance that we have the cost of not having those genetics can be an extra $1200 in drench for the progeny of every $1000 ram over the next 5 years of its breeding life.”
Richardson is now focused on multiplying the genetics. He thinks he can get his whole flock of ultimates within another generation.
“We’re selecting for a lot of traits but we’ve got all those traits in our stud so it’s a matter of actually multiplying them out now.”