Wednesday, 12 June 2024 13:55

The farmers' scientist will be sorely missed

Written by  Owen Jennings
The late Jock Allison was happiest while out at field days or explaining his findings on farm. The late Jock Allison was happiest while out at field days or explaining his findings on farm.

OPINION: Few people have any idea of the huge contribution Jock Allison made to agriculture and to science.

Jock, who passed away recently, had international status in sheep breeding. His contribution as the Director of the Invermay Research Centre and later in the private sector is legendary. No scientist has contributed more to the increase in genetic merit of the New Zealand flock.

Jock’s early work focused on improving fecundity lifting the ram to ewe ratio. He found that given sound fertility with the right rams, one ram could service 250 ewes without any statistically detrimental effect on conception rates. It didn’t make him popular with ram breeders, but Jock was never deterred by popularity or lack of it. He was focused on quality science and results that improved the industry’s performance.

Through his tenacity and foresight, Invermay was transformed from a few dilapidated buildings to a modern research facility. When Wellington bureaucrats wanted to take a pruning knife to the staffing and activity at Invermay, it was Jock who battled for its retention. He was loyal to his staff and loyal to the needs of the region.

One of Jock’s significant accomplishments as an AgResearch director was convincing the then Meat and Wool Boards in 1997 that Genetics nProve should be developed using the animal model BLUP. This doubled the rate of genetic change in the sheep industry.

He also advocated a central progeny test.

Again, it had a major impact and increased genetic gain by a further 50%. Lamb production per ewe has increased by 114% since the 1990/91 year, which on a kg of dry-matter basis is a gain more than 30%. A major part of that change is genetics – genetics that were driven by Jock.

Another of Jock’s most remarkable achievements was getting the dairy industry, the meat industry and AgResearch into the same room in 2002 and having them fund, along with other countries, the sequencing of the cattle genome. That commitment meant the cattle genome was prioritised for sequencing as the first farmed animal species.

Jock made the transition from government servant to the private sector, forming his own business focused on importing new sheep breeds that made a huge and lasting contribution to the sheep industry. His company LambXL, imported new sheep breeds, including Texel, Fin, Oxford Down, East Friesian, Beltex, and Awassi.

In 2000 he received the NZ Society of Animal Production’s Sir Arthur Ward Award and was made an Officer of the NZ Order of Merit for services to agriculture – a rare accomplishment for a rural focused person.

In 2003 he received the Bledisloe Medal for distinguished contributions to NZ’s land-based industries.

Jock was a scientist who believed extension was as important as research. He was a ‘farmer’s scientist’, not an ivory tower theorist. He was happiest at field days or out on a farm explaining his findings. While sometimes blunt and terse, Jock was actually a warm, helpful person with a great sense of humour. Nothing was too difficult or too much trouble if it helped the cause.

In later life Jock took a strong interest in climate science. He attacked the issues with his characteristic fervour. He devoured difficult scientific papers on all sides of the debate. He reached out and traded thoughts and ideas with the world's leading researchers. They held Jock in high regard. His published paper with Dr Tom Sheahen is highly acclaimed as comprehensive, detailed and very readable

Jock Allison was a great New Zealander whose contribution and commitment to science will be missed.

Owen Jennings is former national president of Federated Farmers.

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