Passion driving force behind new breed
Words by Annie Studholme, images by Annie Studholme & Amy Piper
At a time when sheep numbers are at an all-time low and amid continued decline in industry confidence, one man’s passion for breeding and improving bloodlines is the driving force behind a new sheep breed being trialled in the Mid Canterbury foothills.
Mid Canterbury foothills farmers Blair and Sara Gallagher are passionate about the New Zealand sheep industry. For decades their Rangiatea Perendale Sheep Stud, near Mt Somers, has led the way in Perendale breeding by focusing heavily on selecting the best possible genetics available to enhance bottom line profitability in a commercial setting.
For the past three years they have been working on a joint breeding programme with Donald Morrison of Rosedale Growbulk in Waikaka and now with the help of former Invermay head genetic scientist Dr Jock Allison and farm advisor John Tavendale, they have taken it a step further importing some purebred Beltex embryos from the United Kingdom in the hope of establishing the new breed in New Zealand.
It’s the first new sheep breed to be introduced to New Zealand in almost a decade following in the footsteps of East Friesians in 1992 (released from quarantine four years later), Texel in 1990 and Charollais in 2009, and with the Beltex’s high meat producing capabilities, Blair is convinced the double-muscled Texel off-shoot from Belgium could be a game-changer for New Zealand sheep farmers.
Blair first spotted the Beltex sheep breed more than a decade ago, but until the Ministry of Primary Industry (MPI), now known as the Ministry of Agriculture, changed its protocols regarding the importation of sheep embryos from the United Kingdom without quarantine being required, the whole exercise was cost prohibitive.
“Basically we tried to do it 12 years ago. We went through the process, but with three years of quarantine and a likely $3 million bill, we lost interest,” he says.
Quite by chance, Blair and Sara met up with Jock in 2016 and he informed them the protocols had changed and asked whether or not they were still keen to pursue the idea. The Gallagher’s jumped at the prospect and 10 days later they were on a plane to the UK.
“The potential contribution to lamb carcass confirmation and increased meat yield particularly in the greater eye muscle area and muscling in the leg is huge,” says Blair. “The real advantage is that we don’t have to get them to a heavier carcass to get around the ideal 18/19kg lamb. They don’t have to be big lambs to achieve that. There is just nothing like a Beltex for carcass conformation.
“In the UK, they can’t keep up with the demand of Beltex cross lambs. Butchers love them and they are exporting whole carcasses into the European chiller market, with prices consistently fetching a 15-20% premium for Beltex lambs.”
Having identified one of the top studs in the UK, the first Beltex embryos were collected late 2016 from leased rams and ewes from Kevin and Rachel Buckle’s Broxty Beltex stud in Stephen, Cumbria.
Back in New Zealand, the embryos were transplanted into four-year-old Perendale recipient ewes in March, while they also imported Beltex semen and artificially inseminated a number of stud Suffolk, Poll Dorset and Perendale ewes.
“We lambed them one month earlier than we usually lamb. One reason was so that the ewe lambs will be mature enough to take embryos next year and that the ram lambs will be mature enough for an on-farm sale next March, but logistically it also meant they were out of the way before the rest of our stud sheep started lambing,” explains Blair.
They also opted to lamb them indoors purely because of the capital investment. “We were trying to eliminate all risk and get as big survival as we could in this first year.”
For selecting genetics going forward, Blair says it’s been crucial to know as much as possible about these lambs. Every lamb was weighed and recorded at birth along with any relevant birth data. The purebred Beltex lambs weighed between 3.5-6kg, while the crossbreds ranged from 4-7kg. Once they were a couple of days old, the ewes and lambs went out to pasture. At the next weigh in the crossbreds (born 3 weeks later) were still heavier than the purebreds at the same age because of their larger frames. Weights would also be taken at weaning. Notably, the pronounced muscling the Beltex is known for is not apparent at birth but starts to develop shortly afterwards.
The problems experienced with lambing purebreds has been more to do with being born indoors and feeding, and those problems don’t seem to occur with the crossbreds, explains Blair. They recorded no real issues.
In all, they transplanted 180 embryos from five different sire lines, but the success rate was only 37% leaving just 55 purebred lambs. “It was a disappointing take with the embryo transfer, but we can’t put it down to any particular reason,” says Blair.
They were hoping for a better success next time round. Brimming with enthusiasm for the new breed, the partners had travelled back to the UK selecting stock for their next embryo import before the first lambs had even hit the ground.
This time they are using stock from three different studs from the middle of England and southern Scotland. They are also looking at taking semen from the best ram hoggets here and from some in the UK to really ramp up its artificial insemination programme as well. “The rams we have selected this time are not related to any ewes, so we have really broadened our genetic base. Hopefully we won’t need to go back again and we’ll have enough genetics to build up the numbers,” he says.
By the time the second phase of the breeding programme is complete next autumn, Blair estimates it would have cost them close to $1 million. “It certainly hasn’t been straight forward by any means. It’s expensive and without Jock Allison’s involvement I doubt we probably would have been able to do it all. We have tried to use the best genetics possible, but it comes at a cost. If it was easy, everyone would be doing it, but I love the challenge and can see the potential for the whole New Zealand sheep industry.”
If the breed’s launch at the Canterbury A&P show last month is anything to go by, the Gallaghers may be onto a winner.
“It was absolutely overwhelming,” says Blair. “The feedback we have had has been amazing; much better than we had anticipated.”
Next March they plan to sell the first of their New Zealand bred stock with an on-farm sale at Rangiatea with all the crossbred ram lambs going under the hammer as well as some of the purebred ram lambs.
Despite the massive amount of extra work, the Beltex NZ project has fitted seamlessly into the Gallagher’s Rangiatea farming operation.
At an altitude of 530m at the homestead, Rangiatea can be climatically challenging with long winters and regular snowfalls. Covering 1,100 hectares with a mix of foothills country and flats, they carry 9,500 stock units. It’s made up of 430 predominantly Angus with (on average) 160 two-year-old Waagu cattle bought in for fattening and 7,000 sheep which includes 4,700 ewes including 800 SIL recorded Perendale stud ewes and 110 registered cheviots.
First registered in 1971 with its foundation ewes coming from Massey University’s Flock 1, Rangiatea has long been recognised as one of the country’s leading Perendale studs. Last year its sire rams were judged to have the best maternal genetics for lamb survival, based on figures supplied to national genetics organisation Sheep Improvement Limited (SIL).
Following in the footsteps of his father, Colin, Blair has placed a huge importance on performance running a tough selection policy, only retaining the top 30-35% of ram and ewe hoggets from the stud flock for breeding and selling with a strong emphasis placed on sheep type, structural soundness and conformation. They’ve also sourced the best possible genetics to make the most desirable improvements. Their sheep are all subjected to intense grazing systems with high stocking rates.
On average their stud ewes consistently lamb at 150-160%, with mating weights recorded at between 65-68kg, while their commercial flock achieving rates of 130-140% on the hills. However, in contrast to many other hill country farmers, the Gallaghers have more success lambing twin-bearing commercial ewes set-stocked on warmer sheltered hill country, with as many single-bearing ewes as possible in paddocks in a bid to sell as many of the single lambs at weaning. Lambing starts with their terminals from September 15, followed by the hill ewes from September 30, and lastly, hoggets from October 5.
Although hogget mating doesn’t work for everyone, the Gallaghers have found it a crucial part of overall profitability. “It’s pretty hard to put $50-70k on the bottom-line anywhere else,” says Blair. “We have tried everything, but we’ve found the survival when crossed with the cheviot tends to be the best. The lambs are small and vigorous and we don’t tend to get so many prolapses.”
For Blair and Sara’s son Hamish, 23, who returned home at the start of January, the Beltex project has been a massive introduction to farming.
After leaving school, Hamish completed a Bachelor of Agricultural Commerce at Lincoln University before heading off overseas where he has been working and travelling. Initially his parents gave him until age 25 to return home to the family farm, but he came back early specifically to help get Beltex NZ up and running. “In reality I probably would have given it a couple more years, but with the Beltex project it was perfect timing. It’s definitely been a huge learning experience, and it would have been hard to get up to speed if I hadn’t been here from the start.”
Hamish was really excited about their future. “Their backend is pretty amazing. No other sheep in New Zealand can do that,” he says.
On returning Hamish has become the fifth generation to farm in the area. Blair’s father grew up at Brackley at Montalto. He later farmed at Ealing where he had a large merino stud. With the prospect of irrigation in the 1950s with the Mayfield Hinds Irrigation scheme, Colin dreamt of returning to the foothills. “He wasn’t that keen on irrigation so started looking for a higher rainfall property and bought this place,” explains Blair.
Back then the farm ran 1,200 half bred ewes and about 30 cows. It had never really seen fertiliser, had little fencing, the homestead was quite run down and the garden was almost non-existent. Having brought his merino ewes with him from Ealing it quickly became obvious to Colin they wouldn’t work with the higher rainfall, so he crossed them with Romneys and later crossed that progeny with the Perendale which forms the basis of the Rangiatea flock today.
Blair bought into the farm when he was 28 years old and took over the remainder when his father died in 1988.
The garden for which Rangiatea is also known was created by Blair’s mother, Margaret. An avid gardener, Margaret spent years establishing an extensive garden surrounding the homestead with woodland walks, a mass of daffodils and bluebells in spring, colourful rhododendrons and azaleas from mid-October. The garden has wonderful autumn colours, particularly the maples.
While she never set out to open the garden to the public, the garden just evolved, a legacy Blair and Sara have continued and extended over the years adding plantings of continual flowering roses at their best during the summer months overlooking a large pond, farmland and views of Mt Somers. It now hosts regular groups and visitors by arrangement.
As an aside to their farming operation Blair and Sara also run Rangiatea Jewellery, making use of the wonderful agate deposits found on the property left some 90 million years ago when nearby Mt Somers was an active volcano spewing hot silica-based liquids. Geologists had long known there was agate in the area. Blair discovered it and in doing so launched a passion that has spanned decades. He started manufacturing jewellery during his 20s using expert bead makers in Hong Kong and when Hamish came along together Blair and Sara ramped the business up even further.
Over the years they have extended the range of polished agates and jewellery, transforming an old tack room adjacent the homestead into a quaint gallery where hundreds of examples of the stones are displayed.
In addition to the agate jewellery they also import paua shell, Mother of Pearl and pink mussel shell, blue pearl shell (nautilus shell) and freshwater pearls set in quality sterling silver. Most recently they have added a new range featuring white sapphires in rose gold and matted silver settings.
You’ll find them at most local fetes and shows. Their jewellery is also sold to visiting groups by arrangement and at some retail outlets. While it’s something completely different to farming, both Blair and Sara really enjoy it. “We have met some wonderful people over the years. It takes us off the farm and gives us another interest, but it also sort of involves the farm,” says Sara.
Although at the moment Blair’s passion for agate is taking a backseat, while he and Hamish put everything into establishing the Beltex breed in New Zealand.