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.
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.”
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.”
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 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.
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.”