Passing the DNA Test

A legacy of genetic testing has seen the Piquet Hill Stud’s facial eczema occurrence reduced to virtually nil.

Over four decades, their Te Akau farm’s performance record has gone from strength to strength, motivating thirdgeneration breeder Will Jackson to keep adapting.

Will and his team are passionate about producing the best-performing stock. Using the knowledge and succes of their renowned ram breeding programme, quality service bulls have been added to the business ledger.

The Jackson family started sheep farming west of Ngaruawahia in the early 1950s when Will Jackson’s grandfather, war veteran Hughlings Jackson, drew a 610- acre coastal ballot block. Mostly tough hill country, the farm has always been operated under an easy-care policy with no shepherding to ensure sound and hardy breeding. Will’s father, Peter Jackson, had always been interested in genetics and a massive blow to the farming operation in the 1960s, when they lost 2,500 ewes to facial eczema, was the catalyst for the change in breeding focus. Peter, who was also the chairman of Affco for 10 years, started the Piquet Hill Stud in 1966 with a strong emphasis on facial eczema testing, performance recording and structural soundness.

The stud was a member of the original Romney Development Group, screening more than 100,000 ewes which formed a strong genetic base for the initial breeding programme. Will and his brother Tom joined the breeding operation in 2003 and 10 years later formed a partnership to complete the purchase of the farming business. Just last year, Will sole purchased the stud, bull-lease business and 1,600ha which, along with an additional 220ha of leased land, makes up Piquet Hill Farms today.

Confidence underpins guarantee
The sheep stud, which comprises Romney, Maternal Composite and Suffolk, is one of the highest facial eczema tolerant flocks in New Zealand. Will says clients who have used Piquet Hill facial eczema tolerant rams exclusively over a long period of time have reduced their incidence of facial eczema to virtually nil. “We guarantee all two-tooth rams against failure for two seasons and all Romney and Maternal Composites come with a lifetime guarantee against facial eczema. “If one of our rams breaks out with facial eczema, we will repay the whole ram bill. We’ve never had to do that but that is how confident we are.”

Will says facial eczema has become a significant constraint to overall production of sheep in the North Island and the north of the South Island. He says two percent of clinical cases of facial eczema in ewe hoggets will cause an overall drop of 25 percent in lifetime production in that age group of sheep. “Facial eczema is still at the forefront of farmers’ breeding decisions and there seems to be a renewed interest in the trait. “I get a kick out of seeing farming businesses benefitting from our genetic development and watching flocks improve and profits increase,” Will says.

Changing genetics provides greater return
Will finds it incredible to see the change in an animal’s genetic profile by managing their development. He explains that on a percentage scale facial eczema is highly heritable, sitting at around 45 percent. Testing involves inputting high levels of laboratory-grown to provide a reading on how tolerant the ram is. “As the rams become more tolerant, they need a higher dose to show a reaction, hence the increase in the dose rate over time. “Because facial eczema is so heritable, we need to keep exposing the breeds to more and more sporidesmin,” he explains.

Piquet Hill is currently testing Romneys at 0.069mg per kg of live weight – the highest in the country – with Maternal Composites at 0.062mg per kg of liveweight and Perendales at 0.045mg per kg of liveweight. They are also blood testing all Suffolk ewes and rams for facial eczema. For 40 years Piquet Hill has recorded through Sheeplan, Animalplan and SIL.

Their results are built off many years of genetic advice from scientists who appreciate the practical challenges of hill country farmers. Initially, this advice came from the late Graeme Hight and then Dr Clive Dalton from the MAF Whatawhata Hill Country Research Station, both of whom worked on the Lands and Survey Waihora Breeding Schemes.

The Piquet Hill programme involves a group of potential sires selected through their Estimated Breeding Values and genomic breeding values in late November, which are then put forward for a Ramguard facial eczema test. “We think of a ram as an investment, not a cost. It is about genetic improvement for the future.

“All rams that we sell are from a ram that has passed our testing programme. This ensures clients are getting the highest possible tolerant genetics for their flock.” Will believes that after more than 30 years of testing to improve facial eczema tolerance, and a programme to address worm resistance, they are well positioned to address what he describes as two of the major inhibiting factors to profitable sheep production. He says lifting lambing percentages from 120 to 170 percent is now quite achievable.

“We have seen hogget mating achieve 120 percent plus lambing and these dramatic gains all come from proven genetics.” He says better commodity prices and higher production in sheep have also seen some outstanding financial gains in the sheep sector. This, along with more sophisticated farm management systems and the tools of cross-breeding, farmers still have opportunities that haven’t previously been available.

Nature plus innovation
A point of difference for the Piquet Hill Stud is that it is run under absolutely natural conditions at commercial stocking rates with rams coming forward for sale in natural condition straight off hill country.

“We are just a typical farm and what I enjoy the most is seeing these genetics performing in a commercial environment. We have clients from Kaitaia down to Motueka farming on a variety of finishing and breeding properties.

“We describe our breeding programme as a bottomup approach where our stud stock is put under as much commercial selection pressure as possible, so the best genetics express themselves. “If you continually feed stock at the optimum level there is no selection variation. “We don’t drench ewes, don’t priority feed lighter stock and we run all stock to commercial conditions.

The stud is now also testing the sires selected for the facial eczema programme for worm resistance. In the autumn, when the worm challenge is at its highest all stud ram hoggets are faecal egg counted for the Worm Fec programme which is being run by AgResearch. The results are then collated and inputted into SIL and run into the customised Piquet Hill index.

Will says the trait is good to pursue when you consider that 10 percent of a flock is spreading 50 percent of the worm burden. “Farmers are on the lookout for no-frills genetics that offer a sustainable product that is structurally sound with a good constitution.

“Any farmer who has an issue with facial eczema in their flock should be looking to source rams from an accredited Ramguard breeder and be asking questions around what their dose rate is, what is their pass rate at that dose rate and how long have they been testing for. “We have noticed over the years, through our facial eczema testing programme, that there is a dramatic reduction in grass staggers – so grass staggers appear to have a strong correlation with facial eczema tolerance.”

Will believes to be a good ram breeder you have to be your own biggest critic.

“It’s essential to be able to market your breed by believing in what you are doing, but you also need to be critical enough to see the imperfections and what you need to improve on.”

In recent years there has been a change of focus from ewe body weight to body condition and the correlations between the two. Research has shown that ewe body condition has a dramatic impact on a lot of production traits. To meet industry demand Piquet Hill now Body Condition Scores all ewes at weaning and mating.

Will says the industry is changing in regard to inputs, such as antibiotics, fertiliser and drench. Sheep need fewer inputs, so they are more attractive to the consumer.

“There is an increased focus on farming responsibly – farmers need to know how best to meet market expectations, using sustainable and ethical methods. Farmers are responding to environmental challenges through innovation, which they are already well known for. “We fit in as breeders who try to breed sheep that are hardy, low input and that farmers get high production out of. “For me, any growth in sales needs to be sustainable. My target is to have 100 percent of clients happy and sustainably grow over time.”

Expanding on their success
Expanding on the success of their rams, Piquet Hill Farms also offer quality service bulls to the dairy industry. Ten years ago, the Jackson brothers started leasing cattle to the dairy industry and selling bulls and this year Will sold and leased over 1,700 bulls. Last September’s annual on-farm bull sale saw 410 bulls on offer with a 100 percent clearance. “The bull side of the business is about building on the knowledge and success of our ram breeding programme.

“Being able to manage stock is critical and we offer Jersey, Hereford, Angus and Charolais bulls that are guaranteed for quietness and soundness,” he says. The bull business has been particularly difficult with Mycoplasma bovis at the forefront of dairy farmers’ minds.

“We have had to test every bull on the property for the disease, although this isn’t fool-proof by any stretch of the imagination – we felt it was our only option to give dairy farmers some surety.” Will says growing a successful farming business requires a team effort and has unique challenges.

He is grateful for the support of his partner, Nicola Bradstreet and farm staff who help keep the operation going. “Having bought my brother out last year, we are going through a process of development and change.

“At the moment, there is a focus on capital infrastructure including fencing, yards, a new airstrip and all-weather tracks, with the aim of building efficiencies within the business. “Any good business needs competent support staff and strong plans and strategies. We are grateful to have these people around us. “Agriculture is experiencing immense changes in the current environment and if you are not willing to adapt, you are left behind.

“There are constant environmental and sustainability challenges and as farmers, rather than looking a decade ahead, we need to take a longer-term approach. “I’m incredibly thankful to my father Peter and the work he started. He’s given me the tools to carry on the legacy. “Agriculture has always been my passion and every morning when I wake up, I think how