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Prime lamb and fault-free wool

New Zealand is synonymous with sheep farming, having developed over the past 150 years four distinct sheep production systems:

premium fine wool production,

mid-micron wool production,

dual-purpose sheep for strong wool and lamb production, and

intensive lamb finishing for meat production.

These systems contain a variety of sheep breeds and crossbreeds adapted for different purposes.

The first European sheep imported and farmed in the early 19th century were Merinos, which produce the finest and whitest wool for knitwear, active wear and men's suits.

New Zealand now has a Merino flock of three million ewes and wethers farmed in the high country, supplying niche markets for the high-quality low-micron fibre. Early crossbreeding efforts in the 19th century between the Merinos and English Leicesters and Lincolns produced medium-woolled Halfbreds and Corriedales, which grew bigger and had more lambs while surviving on dry pastures in low rainfall regions. These are now a major sheep type in South America, particularly Argentina and Uruguay. In New Zealand these mid-micron sheep produce wool for premium knitwear, especially for European and Chinese manufacturers.

Also in the late 19th century New Zealand farmers went back to the Romney Marsh, Border Leicester and Down breeds of England for greater emphasis on cross-breeding for meat lambs, which were exported for the first time in 1882 when refrigerated shipping began.

The New Zealand Romney dual-purpose breed (high-micron strong wool for interior textiles and furnishing plus lamb production) dominated sheep farming during most of the 20th century, adapted for farming on hill country with good survivability and lambing rates.

Variations of Romney such as the Coopworth and Perendale were developed to emphasis easy-care shepherding and efficient production on hard hill country.

The export of strong wool was for a time New Zealand's largest single export commodity, with a reputation for clean, bright, long-staple fibre which can be readily processed and dyed. But consumer tastes changed away from woollen carpets and furnishings and production declined. At the same time demand for New Zealand lamb meat grew in the major export markets in Europe, the Middle East and North America.

Initially that export lamb demand was filled with the lighter, relatively slow growing Romney-cross lambs from the dual-purpose ewes which also produced strong wool.

Romney ewes were mated with Suffolk, Down, Dorset and Hampshire breeds, called prime lamb terminal sires, to lift the lamb frame size and growth rate.

From 1980 onwards new European breeds such as the East Friesian, Texel and Finn sheep were imported for crossing with the Romney, offering a further boost in ewe fertility levels and large numbers of faster-growing lambs.

Modern intensive lamb production farms target lamb liveweight gains between 200g and 400g per day on special-purpose pastures, resulting in carcases weighing 16kgs to 20kgs, which are then processed into frozen and chilled cuts before export.

New Zealand now has 40 sheep breeds and crossbreeds, offering different characteristics for targeted production and a range of outputs. Low-input sheep farming methods and sheep handling equipment, along with animal health regimes, have been developed and marketed worldwide.

The sheep breeding industry is generally unified under Sheep Improvement Limited (SIL), which is controlled within New Zealand with all recording and calculating done within and, controlled by the country's own geneticists.

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More than 16,000 sheep and beef farms contain 45 million sheep, including 30 million ewes which produce 36 million lambs each spring time. Around 24 million of these are finished for slaughter and export each year. The balance is used for ewe and ram replacements. New Zealand is the biggest exporter of lamb meat in the world and derives over half of its lamb income from exporting to the European Union. The second largest regional market is North America. More than 90% of export lambs are further processed into cuts before shipment, and the meat sent either chilled or frozen, by sea or airfreight.

In Europe and North America, New Zealand lamb has the highest reputation for quality and a large portion of exported lamb by weight goes to the hotel, restaurant and food service sector.

The attributes of prime New Zealand lamb include low fat cover and intramuscular fat content, nil chemical residues, tenderness and versatility for cooking. Grass-fed lamb also contains high levels of the cancer-fighting CLA fatty acid and a favourable balance of poly-unsaturated fats, leading to "good" cholesterol.

New Zealand sheep also produce 200,000 tonnes of clean wool annually (after the removal of wool grease or lanolin by wool scouring) at an average of 5.5kgs (12 lbs) per head, which is a high yield by world standards. This wool ranges from the 16-19 micron (fibre diameter) superfine description, used for the very best clothing, to the 37-plus micron coarse wool used for carpet manufacture.

Sheep are shorn once or twice a year, by shearers who are among the world's fastest and most consistent. The fleece wool is sorted and baled before being sent to the wool store, sold and then scoured before export. There are more than 100 different descriptions of wool, with price variations. New Zealand is the world's largest exporter of strong (coarse) wool used for floor covering and soft furnishings.

The reputation for quality enjoyed by New Zealand wool comes from a combination of several factors: clean, weed-free pastures and a low vegetable matter contamination level, careful shearing and wool handling, top-quality scouring, accurate descriptions of types and blends, long staples, lack of yellow colour, no black fibres and freedom from faults which might result in broken fibres.

Farmers have a responsibility to grow the wool evenly during the year, by avoiding feeding pinch periods, and to employing skilled shearers and well-trained wool handlers. New Zealand wool industry experience is highly valued in Europe, the Americas and Australia.

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The types of sheep farming in New Zealand can be divided into three divisions:

Fine and mid-micron wool growing on rangelands (often sub-alpine).

Strong wool and lamb production from Romney and Romney-derived sheep on hill country pastures, usually of low productivity.

Prime lamb production on lowland pastures of higher productivity.

The first and third types of farming are practised elsewhere around the world, notably in Australia, South Africa and South America (the first) and in Europe and North America (the third).

However, hill country farming, with low inputs and easy-care sheep, mostly unshepherded, is unique to New Zealand and is derived from the traditional sheep farming in northern England and Scotland. Low-cost production is based on large numbers of sheep per labour unit; self-sufficiency by foraging for food from pastures; unsupervised lambing, with hardy, active lambs; low rates of use of animal remedies, selection for resistance to disease problems like internal and external parasites, facial eczema, footrot and flystrike; annual culling for unsoundness and infertility; and the use of sheep dogs, yards, motor bikes, dipping facilities, shearing sheds and ear tags for identification. If the farmer is following a sheep breeding programme, he/she will also be weighing at regular intervals, recording all matings and lambings, purchasing and using new rams, pursuing a plan to improve one or more production characteristics, mating ewes for the first time as hoggets and using heterosis, or hybrid vigour, from crossbreeding.

The productivity of New Zealand hill country sheep farming (which is the dominant farming type) has increased quickly in the past 20 years because of the use of improved grasses, more fertiliser, weed control, closer paddock subdivision, breeding for disease resistance, more fertile sheep breeds, selection for lamb survival without assistance at birth, selection for lean meat growth and not fat, and preferential feeding for twin-bearing ewes and rapidly-growing lambs.

The national industry achievement is 120 lambs surviving until weaning per 100 ewes mated annually and the average export carcase weight is now 17kgs (37.5 lbs), up from only 13kgs some 25-30 years ago.

New Zealand now produces more weight of export lamb each year from 30 million ewes than it did 25 years ago from 50 million ewes. Each ewe and her lambs are better fed and considerably more productive.

Adoption of New Zealand sheep farming techniques can greatly assist sheep farmers in other countries to make rapid genetic progress towards production characteristics which are being targeted: more weight of lean lambs, more wool, greater milk volumes, longer lifetimes, or freedom from disease.

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Performance recording has been a feature of the New Zealand sheep breeding industry since the National Flock Recording Scheme (NFRS) was launched in 1967. The service was operated on behalf of breeders by the advisory divisions of the New Zealand Department of Agriculture with input from its research division and Massey University.

NFRS was continuously modified throughout the next decade and then a revamped system, Sheeplan introduced in 1976. By the early 1980s half a million ewes in 1300 ram-breeding flocks were being fully performance recorded annually. Animalplan replaced Sheeplan in the late 1980s. About this time alternative systems began to emerge such as Flocklinc, operated by Lincoln College for the Coopworth Society, and software packages for on-farm PCs. The responsibility for the national sheep database transferred from government to the New Zealand Animal Breeding Trust (NZABT) in 1991. The latest upgrade of the country's sheep performance recording programmes was undertaken in 2002 on behalf of the industry by Sheep Improvement Limited (SIL) a company established by the Meat and Wool Boards with development funded by producers' levies. The NZABT maintains its other roles in servicing the New Zealand sheep industry, and operates Animalplan for some special-situation sheep flocks and for Boer goat breeders, but passed custodianship of the national sheep database to SIL in 2002.

Throughout the preceding 35 years there has been a strong commitment to performance recording. The high level of adoption of performance-based selection by unregistered Romney breeders (including the large government-owned stations), the formation of group breeding schemes and the commitment of the breed organisations such as the Coopworth Society who made performance recording mandatory some 20 years ago, have been responsible for the significant genetic improvement of the New Zealand flock over that period.

Today a significant proportion of all rams used in New Zealand are now selected and sold on the basis of performance information, specifically breeding value (BVs) estimates of genetic merit for economically important traits. Most of these BVs are generated using SIL software. Breeders buying and selling in the Australian market, such as the Merino and Polled Dorset breeders are also using the Australian sheep recording programmes (Merino Genetic Services and Lambplan). Alternative methods of analysis are also being sourced from the USA by breeders of composite sheep. The advent of DNA testing, genetic marker selection and cloning along with the high level of cross-breeding and development of composites is moving the sheep industry forward at an ever-accelerating rate, challenging the genetic evaluation systems to keep abreast.

The database resulting from the previous 35 years of record keeping is the largest sheep genetics database of its kind internationally and will serve to assist in meeting this challenge and add value to the New Zealand sheep industry into the foreseeable future.

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