A LARGE audience packed into Gordon Levet’s woolshed near Wellsford in Northland last month for a serving of knowledge from a respected line-up of speakers.
Celebrating 50 years as a sheep breeder, Mr Levet brought together a group of scientists who had come to know him through his contributions to science of worm and footrot resistance to name a few.
“He certainly has challenged conventional thinking — question everything, accept nothing is his catch-cry,” says Lincoln University geneticist Jon Hickford.
“It’s a miracle an event like this can happen. You wouldn’t be able to get this sort of turn-out if it was held at Lincoln. You would be lucky to get people from the next department to come to it.
“It shows the level of respect there is for Gordon and what he has done for farming and science.”
The speakers at the October 22 field day included Amy Bell (CSIRO), Jon Hickford (Lincoln University), John McEwen (Invermay), Nick Nicholson (Wool Exporters Council), Chris Morris (AgResearch Ruakura), Professor Brian Kirkpatrick (University of Wisconsin) and Mr Levet himself.
After a farm tour at mid-day and a light lunch, attendees found a wool bale to sit on, ready to be enlightened.
Former Northern sheep breeder John Reeves kicked the event off, before Mr Morris talked about breeding for resistance of worms, ryegrass staggers and parasites.
Mr Nicholson followed up with his comments on the fickle and unpredictable state of the wool market.
Mr Levet spoke about his experience in breeding for resistance and how to go about building a flock tolerant to footrot and resistant to worms.
Mrs Bell talked about CSIRO’s Armidale findings and success in breeding for worm resistance, with particular reference to barbers pole worm.
Mr Hickford spoke about the gene marker test he and his colleagues have come up with for breeding for footrot tolerance.
Professor Kirkpatrick discussed his studies into twinning genes in cattle, with reference to Mr Levet’s cow that has produced two sets of triplets.
Finally, Mr McEwen backed up the ideas of some of the other speakers on disease resistance and production.
Mr Levet’s stance on breeding for resistance as opposed to resilience was a big talking point.
“Resilience is no good for barbers pole, because it’s a blood sucker, and while you have that you are going to get dead lambs — it’s as simple as that,” said Mr Levet.
“It might be good for South Island farmers who don’t have high occurrences of barbers pole worm, but for the North Island it’s different.
“I know farmers in the Waikato region who say barbers pole worm is the main killer of their sheep.
“Besides, why would you pursue resilience when it is only 10% inheritable, while resistance is 25% inheritable?”
A central theme in Mr Levet’s comments was the need for worms in sheep.
“Sheep need worms as much as worms need sheep. Without worms the animal’s immune system is weaker.
“Scientists in Britain are even saying the same things about humans.
“If you drench extensively then you are killing off the majority of worms and, at the same time, creating super-worms resistant to drenches.
“Breeding for worm resistance means managing the worm levels in an animal’s gut.”
For all concerned the day was considered a success.
Semi-retired Maungataroto sheep farmer Alan Davey says it was interesting to compare approaches and see where the industry is going.
“Times have moved on and you have to move with them.
“I have been around the sheep industry worldwide and we are streets ahead of the United States and British farmers.
“If you were to hold a meeting like this over in Britain, farmers would be scratching their heads with this material.
“In talking about footrot they would say, well you can treat it with this — they wouldn’t know too much about breeding for tolerance and genetic selection. That is just the level they are at.”
Meat and Wool Innovation research and development manager Mark Aspin said the speakers made the event come alive.
“It was an interesting and varied diet of speakers which was good, because farmers like hearing it from the horse’s mouth.
“You can see we are making progress, but it’s about application and that is where the challenge is.
“We might not get a super-model sheep, but it’s a worthwhile goal.”
Director of the former Wool Board Tom Mandeno says the information delivered at the event is badly needed.
“Feet are a big problem, because they hold back productivity in so many other areas — farmers can handle most things, but feet can cause real problems.”
Most attendees were involved with sheep breeding and the wool industry, though Mr Levet says four goat breeders were present.