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The need for easy care sheep

Falling prices and demand for wool led scientists at AgResearch to develop an easy care sheep that is more efficient to farm and brings better returns.

High wool value influences early sheep breeds in New Zealand

In the early years of sheep farming in New Zealand and in the post-war period, farmers received good returns for meat and wool. The Romney was a dominant breed because it thrived in New Zealand conditions and was good for producing lambs and heavy fleeces. With the high value of wool in these times, farmers selected sheep to grow wool ‘from the nose to the toes’, thinking a heavier fleece would bring higher returns.

Wool demand and prices fall

In the early 1970s, overseas demand for wool began to fall and returns dropped. Wool faced competition from synthetic fibres, and production costs increased for farmers. Government subsidies kept farmers afloat through this time keeping sheep numbers stable, but when subsidies were removed in the 1980s, farmers began looking for ways to increase efficiency.

Some changed their focus to meat production and began to consider that breeds of sheep with less wool might be more cost-effective.

Get information sheet: New Zealand sheep farming: changing influences

Too much wool adds production costs

Wool on some parts of the sheep such as the backside, face and belly is a problem for farmers because it requires extra procedures such as dagging and crutching, adding to production costs. Most of the wool in these areas also has lower value because it’s shorter and dirtier.

Get information sheet: Easy care sheep traits

The Merino, another popular breed in New Zealand bred mainly for its fine wool, was also selected for good wool coverage and, in addition, wrinkly skin. Wrinkly skin increased the surface area of skin and produced more wool. However, it also added more problems for the farmer. It was more difficult to shear, more susceptible to flystrike and the pelts had less value for leather making.

More wool on a sheep and wrinkly skin also reduce sheep fertility, and lambs grow more slowly. 

Easy care sheep concept evolves

Awareness of these issues led Dr David Scobie and his team at AgResearch in the 1990s to embark on a research programme to breed more cost-effective sheep using selective breeding techniques. Their aim was to remove all the unnecessary parts of the sheep and fleece to create sheep that were more productive and easier and cheaper to maintain – ‘easy care’ sheep.

Easy care sheep are faster to shear and have improved fleece quality. Although they produce 20% less wool, most of the wool that’s removed in breeding the easy care sheep is lower value wool. The sheep have short tails that don’t need docking and are less likely to require chemical treatment for flystrike. Eliminating these procedures, which are painful for sheep, improves their welfare. Easy care sheep also have improved fertility and grow faster.

These new traits change the physical appearance of the sheep considerably and may challenge people’s traditional views of what sheep should look like.

Possible ethical and future issues

While the benefits of easy care sheep are well researched and easy to identify, it’s difficult to predict with certainty how these new traits may impact on sheep in the long term. While there can be unforeseen outcomes, scientists do consider possible risks, such as the effect of exposing more skin, and weigh these against the benefits.

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