TIM BYRNE

NZ ahead of UK sheep genetics

New Zealand’s sheep genetics are way ahead of those in Britain, Scotland-based NZ agribusiness consultant Tim Byrne says.

As a senior consultant with Dunedin’s AbacusBio Byrne opened the company’s first European office in June last year to more effectively service British and European Union clients while also seeking to access new areas of agri-tech development in Europe.

While fully convinced that NZ sheep farmers hold a clear genetics advantage over their British counterparts he’s not so sure Kiwi producers are striking a sufficiently strong profile on environmental management issues.

“NZ producers are definitely ahead of the United Kingdom on livestock genetics and business awareness but could arguably learn something from the British industry on the environmental front,” he said, comparing the two countries as they prepare for Brexit and the negotiation of new free-trade agreements. 

“The first big difference I noticed when setting up our office in Edinburgh was how much NZ’s no-subsidy policy has affected the way farmers think back home, in contrast to what I’ve seen in the UK” he said. 

“Having become used to working in an open market over the last three decades, NZ farmers are clearly very aware of the things that make them money. That’s not so much the case in the UK.

“British farmers’ understanding of key performance indicators has become somewhat masked by subsidies with producers finding it less necessary to know exactly what they have to get right to make money.”

While admitting his comments include a good bit of generalisation, he maintains NZ farmers are, on average, much more businesslike than UK producers. 

There again, on the flip side, he thinks NZ’s mid-1980s axing of farm subsidies left domestic producers behind what is happening in the UK on the environmental front.

“Largely because of farm-based subsidies continuing in the UK, British producers have been incentivised to take care of the environment, certainly more so than in NZ,” he said. 

“I’m not saying NZ farmers don’t take care of the environment, just that they perhaps need to strike a better balance between production and the environment.”

That could become an increasingly important message for NZ farmers, especially as the EU’s free-trade ambitions will almost certainly carry a strong environment edge, as part of whatever agreement is finally reached. 

“A lot of NZ producers are well aware of their environmental requirements, of course, with significant efforts being made to improve performance,” he said. 

“Perhaps the first step for the industry in NZ, therefore, is to start talking a bit more about what has been achieved and what is planned for the future. There’s important profile to be gained here.”

As for NZ’s lead on sheep genetics he believes that is because of the UK sheep industry remaining far too fragmented, with a huge number of breeds still being involved in the business. 

“As a result, it hasn’t been possible to compare UK sheep breeds on a worthwhile a genetic basis,” he said.

“The traditional model of sheep production in the UK is based on hill-country sheep such as the Welsh or Scottish Mountain and Blackface,crossed with the Bluefaced Leicester to produce a mule to go into a lowland situation and be mated to a terminal sire. 

“This has served the industry well in the past but it doesn’t now. 

“For today’s market there’s simply not enough performance data available on the breeding animals being fed into the British system, certainly not enough data to pinpoint the stock that will generate future profits.”

That doesn’t mean he’s negative about the potential of the UK sheep industry because there will certainly be opportunities for the UK to produce more lambs in the wake of Brexit.

“To do that, however, UK farmers will need better data and evaluation systems, providing the sort of information they need to be able to secure improved genetic solutions,” he said. 

Asked what he thought the future holds for NZ sheep exports into the EU and UK markets after Brexit, Byrne is entirely upbeat and positive. 

“If NZ lamb wasn’t in Europe there wouldn’t be enough to satisfy consumer demand and that’s not going to change in the light of Brexit.

“Although I believe UK sheep producers will have opportunities to expand production over the next few years there will still be plenty of room for NZ lamb in both the UK and EU markets,” Byrne said.

Reproduced from Farmers Weekly  here