Counting sheep

Long-time sheep pregnancy scanner Daniel Wheeler has clients across the world, James Hoban writes.

In Livestock7 Minutes

Pregnancy scanners work some of the longest, coldest hours in the sheep sector. Sitting in the scanning seat in the depths of winter and carrying out the timebound job under seasonal pressure means that usually the work cannot wait for the weather to clear.

For Daniel Wheeler, it is a role he has embraced for as long as anyone in New Zealand. Daniel was one of the three sheep scanners to import a scanning machine in 1992 and introduce what is now widespread technology. Of the three who began at the same time, Daniel is the only one still scanning.

He recently scanned his seven millionth sheep and is confident this is at least a NZ record but also quite likely the highest total any scanner globally has reached.

The at-times antisocial hours, travel and work in the dark are balanced by the benefits of meeting new people, maintaining long-term relationships and time spent on one of his favourite things – talking about sheep.

Daniel says it is ironic he started scanning at 22 years old and has stuck with it because generally he will not recommend it as a career to young people who are interested.

“Scanning does tie you to an area so you have got to be at a point where you are ready to settle somewhere.”

Despite that, Daniel has travelled extensively with scanning. He first saw it in 1992 in Scotland, where he worked as a scanner’s assistant. He travels back to Scotland annually for the scanning season and still scans for clients he first visited in 1992.

Daniel Wheeler has travelled extensively with scanning, starting in Scotland in 1992.

His NZ client base is located mostly from Conway to Rakaia as well as on the West Coast and Golden Bay. The farming landscape has changed dramatically since he started. Initially, nearly half the sheep he scanned were Corriedales whereas today they are more than 80% strong wool or crossbred flocks.

Many of his original clients have exited farming or have had children take over. Daniel says it is a great privilege to have scanned for more than one generation on some properties. He has seen the most notable trends in that time being an increase in ewe size, an increase of about 30% scanning on average and a decrease in ewe numbers.

In addition to a successful scanning career, Daniel is a well-known stud sheep breeder who has experimented with a range of breeds and been prepared to try some less-common options.

He has settled on a Finn-based flock and Finn/Texel ewes as his mainstays but has also continued to progress his low input and shedding flocks. Daniel says Finns have more lambs without suffering from metabolic issues that can prove challenging in multiple bearing ewes. He says Finns do not get milk fever, sleepy sickness or bearings. Texels complement the Finns because they bring muscling and have a short tail. He says Finn/ Texels are common in Europe as a stabilised cross.

Another of Daniel’s interests has been maintaining rare breed genetics, keeping some of the smallest populations going. He maintains a flock of Campbell Island sheep that have a total population under 60 ewes.

It is that willingness to experiment that has seen him focus on breeding low-input sheep, initially focussing on short tails and removing dags from his wool flock. He is quick to point out that low input sheep can still have wool value.

As part of a low input focus, dag score and FEC (faecal egg count) are key for Daniel and are traits that he is adamant more breeders should invest effort in.

“We drench, dip and tail because of dags. If a ram breeder is not recording and selecting for dags and FEC then they are effectively passing the costs of these traits on to their clients.”

Daniel selects for short tails, low dag score, FEC, body condition score, fertility and survival.

He is a strong advocate for recording through SIL (Sheep Improvement Limited) and says that as far he has seen all the evidence shows that it works.

“As far as I’m concerned SIL does what it says on the can. It is particularly good for making progress on traits we cannot see.”

Daniel is a founding member of the Beef + Lamb Genetics low input central progeny test. He was also on the steering committee for that initiative.

His focus on low-input sheep has been long term and in recent times he has also branched out into shedding sheep with his Meatmaster composite flock. These are a combination of Texel, Dorper, Finn and Damara.

He believes the growing trend to shedding flocks is more than a flash in the pan and that with farm costs continuing to rise and returns proving challenging, it may be the way of the future. He sees the uptake of shedding sheep as a rational response to the pressures on farmers and a way to reduce labour requirements and costs associated with wool.

Despite the rapid growth in demand for shedding options, there are top genetics readily available. He says that while it would be hard to find a large number of good shedding ewes to purchase, top rams are easier to find.