NSW Merino stud breeder defends AWI chairman’s focus group actions

Terry Sim, September 14, 2017

Willandra Merino Stud principal Ross Wells

WILLANDRA Merino Stud principal Ross Wells has come out in defence of Australian Wool Innovation chairman Wal Merriman’s attendance of a MERINOSELECT breeders’ focus group in Sydney earlier this year.

On June 15, Mr Merriman attended an AWI-funded sheep genetics focus group and was allowed to observe the MERINOSELECT breeders’ discussion without their knowledge after they were assured of anonymity and confidentiality.

Mr Merriman was not invited to the focus group by the researchers running the AWI-funded research project or by senior AWI staff overseeing its facilitation.

The AWI chairman’s actions have been widely criticised and raised questions about corporate governance at AWI, the wool industry’s grower levy and government-funded research, development and marketing body.

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The MERINOSELECT or performance-recorded breeders’ focus group was followed by other meetings involving MERINOSELECT breeder clients, traditional Merino stud breeders and their ram clients. After Mr Wells was invited to attend the traditional Merino breeders’ focus group on June 16, he called Mr Merriman, also the co-principal of the Merryville Merino stud, to “find out what was going on.”

“He (Mr Merriman) knew nothing about it, nothing whatsoever, and he said ‘Oh, I’ve got to be in Sydney on that day, I’ll go along.”

But Mr Wells understood why the research company running the focus groups Axiom Research did not allow Mr Merriman to sit in on the MERINOSELECT discussion.

Media coverage ‘cooked Wally pretty badly’

Mr Wells said he believed the media coverage of the June 15 focus group and resulting comments had “cooked Wally pretty badly.”

He said Mr Merriman spoke to Andrew Bouffler at the Australian Sheep and Wool Show in Bendigo, who mentioned “nothing about it whatsoever.”

“So it is all about trying to get rid of Wal at the next (AWI) election.

“It is very disappointing the way it has been handled,” he said.

Mr Wells said Mr Merriman “probably” shouldn’t have been at the focus group meeting.

“But he has been extremely picked on.

“I felt as a levy payer that it is his job to know what is going on,” he said.

“He only wanted to sit in the room.”

Merriman ‘had no idea’ about focus group research

AWI chairman Wal Merriman

Mr Wells said it is “absolute crap” that Mr Merriman attended the focus group to find out what the MERINOSELECT breeders were doing. The Willandra stud principal said it was “probably not appropriate” that Mr Merriman, as an AWI director and fellow stud breeder, turn up uninvited and observe breeders who had been asked to give open and frank feedback after being assured anonymity and confidentiality.

“But he (Mr Merriman) had no idea this was going on at all.”

Mr Wells believed Mr Merriman was entitled to have known about the focus groups, but although he would not have cared if Mr Merriman was there, he understood the other breeders’ reactions.

“They must be frightened of him.

“I’m not going to say that Wally shouldn’t have been there, flatly and bluntly, but I would imagine if you want to call a spade a spade, that’s probably right.”

Mr Wells said he has spoken with other breeders about the June 15 focus group.

“I said let’s get some sanity into this and let’s not have a witch hunt to get Wally out of the road.

“I started calling people to see if we could shut it down and it is shutting down to a degree, but we are going to have go through a week with the media, because the media hasn’t had a touch at it yet,” he said.

“It will be full of it in the papers, you can bet your bottom dollar on it.”

He believed Mr Merriman had a right to sit in on the June 15 focus group, but probably didn’t understand breeders had been assured of anonymity and confidentiality.

“I may have been told, I cannot remember it.

“We were called up and I don’t mind going to meetings and I don’t mind having my say,” he said.

Mr Wells believes Mr Merriman has been treated unfairly over his actions at the June 15 meeting, but had no opinion on whether the AWI chairman could have gained knowledge of the focus groups by calling AWI’s chief executive officer or a senior manager.

“I’m not here to argue about that, I just feel that there has been a great song and dance.

“And I know it is out of line, I agree entirely, but it’s a mountain out of a mole hill, good God.”

Merriman’s credibility ‘still solid’

Mr Wells believes Mr Merriman’s credibility in the industry is still solid because of his other work.

“I would be confident of that.

“If anyone should be blamed, I said to someone, pick on me.”

Mr Wells said Mr Merriman had done a lot for the industry from his time as president of the NSW Stud Merino Breeders Association and then president of the Australian Association of Stud Merino Breeders from 2000-2003.

“I’ve been right with Wal for a long time.

“From the time that he became Australian president, he has put more into the industry than anyone else and at the expense of Merryville, to a degree, and that’s what I am trying to defend him for,” he said.

“He has fought for the industry and Wally handled the mulesing issue over a period of time, like the Liberal Government handled the live export trade — the less you say about it, it just goes away.

“It (mulesing) went away, until Richard Norton from MLA created it again,” Mr Wells said.

“He had no reason to create it again, apart from some ideology he has got and it is starting to die again now, but there are cranks around.

“I know Wally deals with things more on the basis of just ‘standing still, let people blow out and it will go away’,” he said.

“Everybody can deal with the mulesing issue off their own bat, as long as they don’t start pinging at the rest of us.”

Mr Wells “absolutely” agrees with the “keep your head down and shut up” approach to the mulesing issue.

Bred Well Fed Well was like ‘paying a levy to destroy myself’

Mr Wells said he, like Mr Merriman, as co-principal of Merryville Merino Stud, is not one of the “measurement men”, who use Australian Sheep Breeding Values generated through MERINOSELECT to select and breed sheep. When asked if Mr Merriman might be influenced by his breeding philosophy in his sheep genetics investment decisions as an AWI director, Mr Wells said only a small part of the industry had benefited from the AWI investment in Sheep Genetics. AWI’s withdrawal of funding for the Bred Well Fed Well program was also “quite legitimate,” he said.

“Because all I’m doing is paying a levy to destroy myself.

“It (Bred Well Fed Well) was denigrating people that didn’t align themselves to the ASBVs,” he said.

“(It was) absolutely denigrating the people that show sheep.

“It is totally unfair that my levies are going to help these fellows sell their rams, that’s what it is all about,” Mr Wells said.

He said he found out a lot of “breeding requirements” by putting his sheep out on the mat at shows. When asked if there was a role for ASBVs in the proving of rams through the production of its progeny, Mr Wells said breeders could also test their bloodlines in wether competitions as Willandra stud clients had done by performing well in recent Peter Westblade Memorial Merino Challenges.

“We measure our sheep just as much as anyone else does and we supply in our ram sale the measurements on each ram compared to their peers in that sale.

“And that’s what the people who come to my sale want to know, they want to know which is the best ram in my sale, not whether he is the best ram or in the top 10 percent across Australia, which is very, very flexible,” he said.

“You can get pretty excited about measurement, I even do a bit myself.”

Mr Wells believed many of the rams used to improve the flocks of the “measurement men” came from flocks that didn’t use ASBVs. The industry’s greatest problem was not having a system to teach visual classing skills, he said.

“We use the tools of measurement, but not with the ASBVs, because from my point of view there is a bit of a question mark there.”



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  1. Jim Weibye, September 18, 2017

    It’s time for the chairman to write a letter. I hope its better than his sidekick’s ‘fishy’ effort. When will McCullough and Merriman answer the phones? Are they hiding again?

  2. Jim Gordon, September 15, 2017

    Mr Wells. The sentence you have written and I quote “It is totally unfair that my levies are going to help these fellows sell their rams, that’s what it is all about.”
    This is the guts of the whole problem. I have paid my levies to AWI and they have spent an astronomical amount of money on developing pain relief to assist with the mulesing debate and I have bred a Merino that doesn’t need mulesing. In my case, all that money could have been spent in other areas. It absolutely stinks and is very unfair. Australia is a big place, there is room for all wool growers. If people want to breed sheep with ASBVs great, leave them to it. If people want to show sheep, great. Bred Well Fed Well workshops, great. AWI, I think they are doing such a good job, give the wool growers the option to put their compulsory levies into other organisations.

  3. John Ross, September 15, 2017

    Those breeding values that are backed by thousands of scientific peer-reviewed papers across many species are all rubbish.

    Why: “Because from my point of view there’s a bit of a question mark there.”

    And this sort of thinking rules the roost at AWI? Winter is coming.

  4. Jane Overnewton, September 15, 2017

    Ah, the old moleskins and navy jumper boys club is sticking together. The Jurassic Park dinosaurs still believe the old traditional ways of our forefathers are the best ways to grow wool. It’s just as well most people don’t believe this and are moving much quicker than AWI. Time to get a new board who won’t waste our money or stifle the future.

  5. David Thompson, September 15, 2017

    Mr Wells’s assertion that Mr Merriman had “no idea at all” that the breeders were asked to “give open and frank feedback after being assured anonymity and confidentiality” is incorrect.
    Mr Merriman was observed by Andrew Michael entering the adjoining “one way mirror” room prior to the commencement of proceedings. He would, therefore, have heard everything from the Axiom facilitator introduction onwards.

  6. Paul Warner, September 14, 2017

    Re Peter Small, there is every reason for AWI to seek to improve the wool industry with investment in the new tool, genomics.
    The future may well frighten and indeed impact traditional operators, but if we do not embrace the future, we have no future, and become the past. I say embrace the future, please.

  7. Simon Wells, September 14, 2017

    Peter Small is quite correct; insofar as “we do need, better and sharper minds at the table than what we currently have”.
    These are the words we ache to hear. But Small is contumeliously wrong, in stating that AWI should not fund MERINOSELECT.

  8. Martin Oppenheimer, September 14, 2017

    Now we know who is setting the narrow, backward-looking agenda at AWI, obviously not the weak board.
    It’s back to the bad old days of sheep breeding wars. What a waste. Houston, we have a problem.

  9. Paul Warner, September 14, 2017

    Bred Well Fed Well, is this the board?

  10. Peter Small, September 14, 2017

    So, what we have slipped back into now is the old horny old political argument about how you breed the best Merino sheep. How is this the business of AWI? Ross Wells is quite correct. Why should he or I or any one else pay a statutory tax to help our competitors out-compete us, be it ram, ewe, fleece, fashion brand, wool-selling system, whatever?. For God’s sake, let the market decide these matters and let our scarce resources for research get onto matters of real significance. -And we will need better and sharper minds at the table than we that what we currently have to chart those waters.

  11. Michael Craig, September 14, 2017

    Some classic wool industry comments there….just GOLD. They are a breed unto themselves. You’ve got to love them for their passion to prevent progress.

  12. Simon Wells, September 14, 2017

    Farmers have a long history of failed industry groups, the common feature: boards dominated by farmers.
    If we don’t learn from our mistakes, history will continue to repeat itself.
    Why do we elect clowns? Sheep yards are not boardrooms. Unqualified, untrained, some even unethical, yes some wholly unfit, we elect to manage the untold millions, seized annually by the wool tax.

    The magnetic lure of the honey pot, the break from the daily grind of the farm, the all-expenses paid European “business-trips’, the overpaid staff, the good old “boys club”. Who could blame them for wanting a bit of old-fashioned fun?

    So it’s no surprise we have another circus. All funded by our blood, sweat and tears, and once again, it’s all ending in tears.

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