The drive for finer wool to gain better prices is on across the country. Tony Leggett reports.

Finer wool and better prices without many of the challenges associated with Merino genetics is just one lamb crop away, according to respected sheep genetics consultant Mark Ferguson.

He says more farmers in high rainfall regions of New Zealand could be embracing the opportunity to fine up their wool clips with only minimal impact on lamb growth and flock fertility, or the risk of higher animal health challenges from infusing Merino genetics.

Ferguson came to NZ from Australia seven years ago to join The New Zealand Merino Company (NZM) to manage its animal production science programme. He now runs his own consultancy, neXtgen Agri, servicing about 50 studs both here and across the Tasman.

His initial role with NZM involved the NZ Sheep Industry Transformation Project. A part of this was the development of a breeding value (BV) for footrot in Merino sheep. “But I’ve also spent a lot of time firing up breeders on the benefits of selection using breeding values,” he says.

His PhD in genetics means he is well equipped to demonstrate the power of selection through BVs.

He’s confident the BVs generated through NZM Central Progeny Test (CPT) are reliable and accurate, so he has no hesitation urging farmers to use them to help select the right ram package for crossing over strong wool flocks.

Data on thousands of progeny from 170 Merino, Polwarth, Dohne, Halfbred, Corriedale and Quarterbred Merino rams tested through the CPT has provided a strong foundation dataset for the fine wool stud industry to use BVs for ram selection.

‘It’s your ticket to stocking rate, your ticket to ewes being in good condition and your ticket to lamb survival.’

“Fining up a clip is not without risks, but the power of information will help overcome many of the challenges. For instance, we know that most of the animal health challenges have a genetic component so you can breed it out of your flock through selection,” he says.

He is not advocating farmers must use 100% Merino rams from the outset. Instead, he suggests that half or three quarter-Merino rams are viable options for starting the transition to finer wool. It is critical that it is the right type of ram so carcase traits and growth are not impacted too much.

“The way I approach a breeding programme with farmers is to focus on production and saving cost. Breeding sheep that reduce work is critical and we’ve also got to breed sheep that produce a product that someone wants, so it must be sustainable, something we’re proud of.”

Fortunately, reducing fibre diameter is quick because it is highly heritable. Mating 19-micron fleece rams to ewes with a 35-micron fleece average means the first-cross progeny will be around 27 microns average. The range of micron in the first progeny will be large, but it’s a quick start on the journey to finer wool production.

Ferguson says there are plenty of examples of fine wool flocks running on NZ properties with higher rainfall and overcoming the risk of moisture damage through selecting sheep with the right fleece structure to cope with it.

“One property on Banks Peninsula I work with is getting well over 1000mm rainfall, and that wool has a fleece structure that can keep out water and stay white. It’s all around staple structure and has to be free enough to allow it to dry fast,” he says.

Second-shearing is also a fast developing trend across the Tasman and several NZ fine wool properties are now adopting the same strategy to improve wool quality and still meet the contract requirements of their end customers.

“If you’re going to breed fine wool sheep in the North Island, then make sure they have fat and muscle because it is the fuel tank of lamb production. Make sure you select rams that have higher BV for muscling.”

“It’s your ticket to stocking rate, your ticket to ewes being in good condition and your ticket to lamb survival,” he says.

“There’s also a positive correlation between fertility, muscle and fat. It keeps ticking up every year as your muscling improves.”

“If you want to run big mobs, you have to have fuel stores for them to perform and be useful. If they can’t get to condition score 3, they are hard to farm.”

There’s also a breeding value for worm resistance.

Ferguson says NZM has invested heavily in developing a reliable footrot BV.

“We couldn’t come north until this work was done. Footrot is big concern, but we now have a BV for footrot that is working really well.”

To achieve a satisfactory level of reliability in the BV for footrot, around 12,500 sheep were put under footrot challenge and then individually scored for footrot.

“The key message from the work is that if you’re buying sheep to bring north, don’t bring anything up here with a BV above zero. The lower (a negative BV) the better.”

There is no BV yet for facial eczema, but anecdotal evidence suggests Merino and Merino cross sheep are no more susceptible to challenge than other breeds.

Some fine wool farmers in the North Island claim the risk of facial eczema is lower in their Merinos because they graze differently to their strong wool sheep.

He advocates farmers choose wrinkle-free sheep without horns because that immediately makes them easier to farm. Wrinkles increase the risk of flystrike and horns make handling sheep in the yards more difficult.