WRIG – The reason for its creation

The WRIG group started in 1970 in the quest to breed a sheep to better meet the needs of commercial sheep farmers.

Existing stud flocks were relatively small and a focus on pedigree, instead of productive and measureable performance traits, meant national flock performance had very low genetic gains and hence low productivity improvements.

The original WRIG group recognised that by pooling resources much more progress could be made.

  • A gene pool of 32,000 breeding ewes, including replacement ewe hoggets.
  • Management experience of the members.
  • The innovative ideas of the group as a whole.
  • The debate and rationale that emerged to meet the needs of commercial sheep farmers in the more challenging hill country environment.
  • The ability to maximise the best genes by running a central flock of the very best ewes selected for productive traits.
  • The use of science based evidence to support decisions.

These core principles have not altered since the inception of the WRIG group. Technology has changed and the WRIG group has been quick to grasp those elements of new technology that can give best advantage. For example, all member flocks were part of the original NFRS (National Flock Recording Scheme). This then moved into SHEEP PLAN, which then migrated into ANIMAL PLAN and finally to SIL (Sheep Improvement Ltd).

In fact, a number of the WRIG group members were instrumental in defining the parameters that were necessary for a robust performance sheep recording system to be effective at lifting flock performance. The very real benefits of Animal Plan were the installation of Breeding Values into the equation and creating indexes that really did start to bend the genetic trend curves in a positive direction.

Over the years the WRIG group has been used by the science community to address various issues relating to genetic improvement. The quality, quantity and breadth of data have made the group an important resource for the entire NZ sheep industry. The linkages between group members’ flocks have enabled robust data analysis under a variety of climatic conditions.

In the early 1990s wool was becoming a lesser component of total farm income and there was an increased need to select for growth rate and muscularity in our sheep. A number of the WRIG group members were part of the Atkins Ranch heavy weight chilled lamb programme into the United States, and direct market feedback gave an extra imperative to improve carcase conformation and quality with a definite focus on the high value cuts.

The WRIG group was the first to embark on a series of progeny tests and meat cutting trials to establish which rams were providing progeny that better met international meat market specifications from a dual purpose breed. The programme, instigated in 1993, continued under the watchful eye of leading geneticist Dorian Garrick until 2013.

Genetic linkages between members’ flocks are important so that comparative analysis of all rams used has a robust base upon which to build the breeding values. In the earlier stages we had annual exchanges of ewes between WRIG group members, following this was the use of A.I. and now a formal ram exchange annually between members maintains those strong genetic linkages.

While for some sheep breeders wool has been completely off the radar, the WRIG group still keep a careful eye on the wool clip. Weight, colour and length are important factors in determining value on a per head basis.

WRIG has continued to minimise obvious wool faults in the belief that the costs of shearing remain the same on a per head basis so we may as well maximise potential income.

Recent lifts in wool price have added real net benefit to the bottom line of sheep farmers’ incomes. WRIG group members are seeing some changes in our potential client base because of this.

Forty-five years on, WRIG supplies about 6000 rams annually, including leasing ram lambs and providing stud rams to the industry. It’s hard to be definitive but we believe the group influences no less than 20% of the self replacing portion of the NZ sheep industry.  Additionally, there is strong demand for surplus breeding stock from our own flocks and those of clients.

One liners that sum up the group, its philosophy and/or its reason for being:

  • “Decades of innovative genetic development”
  • “Genetic power and the collective wisdom of the group”
  • “Established to meet the needs of commercial sheep farmers”
  • “Using science-based evidence to support decisions”
  • “Today’s ram = Tomorrow’s income”
  • “It’s important to select for a balance of production”
  • “Predictable genetic outcomes”