Emma Pettigrew enjoys working out what’s best in her new role at Wairarapa stud farm Wairere, Rebecca Greaves writes. Photos: Brad Hanson.

Analysing data to find the winners, whether it’s selecting sires or identifying trends, appeals to Emma Pettigrew’s competitive side.

She’s relishing her new role as research and development manager at Wairarapa sheep stud, Wairere, where she has been working since October last year.

Her role is primarily data analysis and administration, but she can be called on to help out on farm at busy times, which suits her just fine.

Stud breeding has always been part of life for Emma, 28, who grew up on farms in the Pohangina Valley and Kimbolton, in the Manawatu.

“My parents were stud farmers, both sheep and cattle. They’re now retired, but had Te Ohu Stud, so I grew up with stud stock.”

With 2500 Wairere rams (including two-tooths and ram lambs) sold annually, her knowledge of stud stock certainly comes in handy. She worked hard at selling time last year to make it easier for clients to have access to information on just those rams being presented in their pick, rather than having to wade through the information for all sale stock.

During docking she’s often out and about capturing DNA parentage at those cross-bred flocks that are run off-farm, and at weaning she can be found as extra casual labour. Summer is her time to really crunch the numbers.

Emma Pettigrew assisting the scanner.

With a diverse range of breeding objectives, she’s looking for different traits in different flocks, be it analysing sire lines in the hogget breeding programme, looking at meat traits in a terminal flock or focusing on facial eczema tolerance in the FE flock.

Emma didn’t know what she wanted to do when she left school, but she knew she wasn’t cut out for day-to-day farm work although still had an interest in the hands-on side of working with farmers.

“The role I’m in now, doing the data, but also getting to go out to collect it and play with sheep, is a good balance. I think I have a good knowledge of the industry through growing up on the farm, especially with it being a stud.”

When she left school Emma went to Massey University to study a Bachelor of Med Lab Science, but quickly realised it wasn’t for her. She was able to change majors and cross credit to go on and complete a Bachelor of Science in animal science, with a minor in genetics.

Professor Hugh Blair offered her a summer scholarship to work with him on a mini research project, and that kick-started her academic research career.

She went on to do a one-year honours project with Blair and Associate Professor Rebecca Hickson, called ‘Data drives dollars’, which involved working with Massey and Focus Genetics on proving that estimated breeding values work.

Following that she undertook her PhD ‘Selecting replacement ewes that are born to ewe hoggets’ and has published five papers as a result. As well as Blair and Hickson, her supervisors were well-respected academics, Professors Paul Kenyon and Steve Morris.

“I had a big project with a flock of ewes – twins born to mature ewes, singles born to hoggets and twins born to hoggets – and followed them for the first two reproductions of their life.”

The key finding was that twins born to hoggets were lighter tha n the other two groups, but still produced the same amount of lamb (kg) at weaning, as long as their body condition score was the same.

“The conclusion we drew was that farmers shouldn’t discount lambs born to hoggets, as long as they’re heavy enough at weaning to be selected.”

Since starting at Wairere, Emma has enjoyed being part of the team and getting to grips with the massive amount of data such a large scale stud pumps out.

“I really enjoy the fact I’m able to do data and get behind the numbers rather than just looking at the animals, but I also get out onfarm. The whole environment at Wairere is really good.

“I think there’s so much data and potential to look into that data further, but I’m the new kid on the block at the moment. Simon (Buckley) and Derek (Daniell) are definitely the brains trust and I’m still in the beginner phase. In the future I’d like to bring more to the table in terms of ideas and things we can be doing.”

Emma’s strengths are her strong background in data analysis and management, and she sees plenty of potential to pull even more information from the data being collected at Wairere, to take it to the next level.

“I think it’s a bonus for Wairere that I have practical onfarm experience and can pitch in if they need extra hands at times like docking – if I’m picking up lambs that’s fine. At shearing recently, some staff were on holiday and others were getting mobs in, so I was out vaccinating and drenching ewes. I’m quite adaptable in that sense.”

Emma says she still stays in touch with the science and research happening in the industry, and has retained a role she stumbled into at university five years ago, as associate editor for the New Zealand Society of Animal Production, an annual academic journal. She doesn’t rule out a job in the academic space in the future, but for now she’s very happy where she is.

“I’m a little bit competitive and that comes into it. I like to find the winners, the best or top things going on, whether it’s selecting sires or identifying trends in the data. To be able to improve on traits in the flock we have to select the best animals, and I enjoy working out what’s best.”