Extreme weather conditions are increasing the twin risks of internal parasites and fly strike on sheep.
The farmers have been concerned about increasing levels of drench resistance, rising farming input costs, and issues getting farm labour. Jointly they have at least 200 years experience breeding highly productive, parasite resistant rams.
Chairman Robert Peacock, of Orari Gorge Station in South Canterbury, says the WormFEC Gold group aims to show farmers that breeding sheep for parasite resistance is achievable and will save time and money.
He says breeding animals with natural resistance to parasites is part of the long-term sustainable solution for parasite management.
Peacock says breeders can select stock for parasite resistance using PhenR and WormFEC through service provider Techion. Farmers who want the guarantee of parasite resistant rams to incorporate these genetics into their flock can find WormFEC Gold breeders on SIL.
“Sheep can be labour intensive to farm and some farmers are bringing lambs in every three weeks to drench as well as drenching adult ewes,” he explains.
“With a parasite resistant flock, drenching could be reduced to only once or twice in a lamb’s life, which is a huge saving in time and cost for a farmer. It’s a massive reduction in workload for farmers who are looking for ways to improve their lifestyle and profitability.”
Gordon Levet, a WormFEC Gold member with 31 years experience breeding parasite-resistant sheep, believes when enough ram breeders are breeding sheep with a high degree of parasite resistance there will be an impact on the national flock.
“For individual farmers this will mean savings in labour and costs because they won’t need to drench as often – and for some possibly never,” he explains.
Levet believes it is the right time to improve education for New Zealand sheep farmers as a number of factors make breeding for parasite resistance vital.
“Climate change and more humid conditions mean that parasite populations have increased and the danger period for sheep has been extended. Flocks are more susceptible to internal parasites because drenching programmes are leading to the development of drench resistant parasites. On top of this, global consumers are demanding fewer chemicals in the food chain, so it’s vital that NZ farmers meet the market.”
Peacock says international and domestic markets are expressing increased concern about the security of their supply chain, while consumers are demanding fewer chemicals in their food.
“There is no overnight fix for creating a parasite resistant flock, so even if it takes a decade for supermarket chains to demand drench free animals we need to start work with our sheep genetics now.”
Peacock says that parasite resistance is a heritable trait that can be introduced into the national flock if all breeders and farmers work together, record their genetics and use drench accordingly.
“Even without a change imposed by international supermarkets, this change is essential for the farmer not looking to drench every three weeks for the rest of their working life; breeding parasite resistance into sheep has a huge benefit for them by reducing their work.
“For years our members have been breeding for parasite resistance using WormFEC. This evaluates the natural parasite resistance of rams through the NZ sheep industry’s performance recording and genetic evaluation database Sheep Improvement Ltd (SIL).”
The SIL database uses faecal egg count (FEC) data to generate estimated breeding values (EBVs) so they can rank and selectively breed stock with superior genetics.
Collectively, WormFEC Gold members have taken at least 65,000 FEC samples, with an average of 300 FEC samples each per year.
Members of the group work with Techion, providers of the PhenR and WormFEC service, and with AgResearch which set up WormFEC in 1994 and provides science guidance to the WormFEC Gold group.