AWI backs ‘balanced’ Merino breeding approach in National Merino Challenge

Terry Sim, September 11, 2017

Sheep classing at the 2017 National Merino Challenge.

AUSTRALIAN Wool Innovation will “always present a balanced approach to breeding” after putting its National Merino Challenge under the oversight of sheep classer Stuart Hodgson, a spokesman said today.

AWI has told its NMC steering committee members their roles will cease and the challenge is now under AWI’s Practical Sheep Skills program, managed by Stuart Hodgson.

The fifth annual NMC in Melbourne this year attracted about 110 students from seven secondary schools and eight tertiary institutions. The two-day event has now introduced bout 500 secondary and tertiary students to the basic skills involved in the wool industry and introduced them to a network of wool industry professionals.

Mr Hodgson is well-known as a strong advocate of visual-based sheep selection and recently told The Weekly Times that ­the Merino breeding industry had been “hijacked by figures” and there was not enough reliance on the practical visual assessment of sheep.

AWI’s country manager, Australia and New Zealand, Stephen Feighan, has told the former steering committee members that Mr Hodgson will have oversight of the event, supported by AWI’s wool grower services program co-ordinator Henry Ridge and senior intellectual property associate Nicole Conallin as required.

New South Wales Merino breeder Ben Watts will continue in his role as NMC project manager, but AWI’s manager of wool grower extension and adoption Emily King will no longer be involved in the project on a day-to-day basis.

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‘A bit of a push’ for more visual selection

South Australian consultant and former NMC steering committee member Michelle Cousins gave a ram selection presentation at the recent National Merino Challenge in Melbourne, attended by AWI chairman Wal Merriman.

She told Sheep Central there was “a bit of a push” to have more visual selection sessions at the 2017 challenge.

“My view is that we need to be more balanced in what we are giving in regards to educational tools.”

Ms Cousins presented at sheep selection sessions at the challenge, along with Mr Hodgson and then MERINOSELECT development officer Caris Jones. She said Mr Merriman did not influence any of the presentations, which were the same as those given in 2016.

“There were seven activities, two of them involved the usage of ASBVs.

“We did think that we probably double-presented some of the visual stuff, but that won’t be happening again,” Ms Cousins said.

“There certainly was a push from AWI to make sure we had a visual focus, but I just delivered what I was going to deliver.

“I wasn’t actually told what to talk about or what to say, but certainly when I did that presentation at the start of the day and you had all of AWI listening to what you were saying, making sure you covered on what they wanted, there was certainly pressure, but it wasn’t a direct pressure,” she said.

Ms Cousins said she was confident that the Merino challenge would continue to give balanced sheep breeding presentations to participants, including on the scientific tools such as Australian Sheep Breeding Values and visual classing skills.

“And I have had the conversation to make sure that happens and I have been assured that that is what will be happening.

“There was pressure from AWI indirectly (in Melbourne), but it wasn’t ‘coming up and telling speakers what they could speak on’ or anything like that.”

Ms Cousins said because AWI was trying to target young people in the Merino industry the company would want a balanced focus on sheep breeding presentations.

“My approach to it is you need to use the best out of both (visual and scientific tools) and use them together well.

“There are always going to be people who prefer one over the other, and that’s not right or wrong either, but you need to have an understanding of both,” she said.

“You need a strong understanding of how an ASBV works and you need a strong understanding of visual selection as well and then you can make an informed decision about what you want to use.

“But you can’t make informed decisions unless you are given both sides.”

Need for breeding tool balance is understood

AWI’s Practical Sheep Skills program manager Stuart Hodgson.

Ms Cousins said she believed that Mr Hodgson understood that there needed to be a balance in NMC sheep selection presentations and was more receptive to that than some people gave him credit for.

“I am very keen to make sure that does happen.

“I feel really strongly about it and if it doesn’t happen I would be off the committee,” she said.

“There will be and certainly in Melbourne there was, a strong visual focus, but it also was balanced out with genetic selection with the ASBVs as well.”

Ms Cousins said she will be involved with the 2018 NMC in Adelaide, but is waiting on AWI to get back to her on how the new structure will work.

An AWI spokesman told Sheep Central the company  is very proud of its extensive range of educational opportunities across the National Merino Challenge, Breeding Leadership (applications now open), Wool4School (13,000 students this year), Learn About Wool kits etc right through to Lifetime Ewe Management, Nuffield Scholarship and ARLP support.

“Over its first few years, the NMC has given hundreds of students an introduction to the wool industry and is changing to respond to the very positive feedback it receives every year and it will always present a balanced approach to breeding.”

Mr Feighan has thanked the former NMC steering committee members and told them AWI is looking to move away from the steering committee model and appoint state representatives to champion NMC in their respective states.

“The NMC Project will be expanding in 2017/18 and we will keep you updated with the changes, including regional NMC-type events and school engagement in your area.”

The former members of the NMC steering committee also included Dale Bruns, Hamilton Victoria; Mitchell Crosby, Perth, WA; Malcolm Edwards, Wagin, WA; Danielle Kix, Windsor, NSW; Sydney Lawrie, Tumby Bay, SA; Michael Peden, Goulburn, NSW and Fiona Raleigh, Cootamundra, NSW. Mr Watts referred Sheep Central to AWI for any comment.


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  1. Simon Wells, September 12, 2017

    The statement that “AWI … will always presents a balanced approach to breeding” is not supported by the facts; three chief executive officers within four years.
    When will the wool industry listen to those moving into the future, embrace technology and leave the stagnant pond?

  2. Martin P Butler, September 11, 2017

    A very interesting and timely article.

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