Southdown Sheep Society, NZ

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What was the crisis?

The crisis for the Southdown came when the NZ Meat Board finally came to terms with what the overseas lamb market required and in retrospect it is quite easy to point the finger and say that the Meat Board was actually the leading protagonist for the Southdown in the crisis.

For years, as outlined later in this chapter, the Meat Board had held sway over what type of animal the commercial farmers needed to produce for the UK and the USA, and therefore what type of animal the studmasters were producing to help achieve this.

However, when they suddenly woke up to the fact people wanted a leaner animal with less fat, they did what all larger corporations do, and passed the buck lower down the chain. As the Southdown of the time was the leading lamb sire in use, it was easy to point the finger there.

Commercial farmers turned away from the Southdown, there was a dramatic drop in stud flock numbers, and a significant part of many farmers economic return was suddenly in jeopardy.

Some breeders, including leading Southdown breeders of the day would be vilified in years to come because they had pushed for the shorter, fatter type of Southdown that had been predominant in the 1950s, but I believe that in reality they were good enough stockmen to adapt to the Meat Board’s requirements, but unfortunately when the Board actually realized what was happening overseas, and didn’t just meet over high tea on Cuba St, nepotism took over and the Southdown copped the fallout/blame.

One breeder who was awarded an OBE for services to the sheep industry, and made a Life Member of the Southdown Society who could fall into the category of being a top stockman, catering to the NZ Meat Board requirements who was later vilified by many in the breed was RM Perry OBE owner of the Kohatu Stud in the Wairarapa, partially I believe because of the ‘Tall Poppy’ syndrome prevalent in NZ even today and because many were looking for a scapegoat. During the 1950s the Kohatu Stud even challenged the acclaimed Punchbowl Stud for supremacy in the Southdown breed.

In the video below Mr Perry sells a “Southdown of the Day” for a world record price at the time. You can view live the type of animal that was sought after at the time, and he was good enough as a stockman to produce this. While hindsight always makes things easier, he produced what the Meat Board was looking for, something that all sheep breeders must look at when trying to create a successful stud breeding operation.

 

In the two sections below I have endeavoured to enlighten younger breeders, and perhaps older ones too as to what took place when one can look back with hindsight without being in the middle of the processes at the time.

THE NEW ZEALAND MEAT BOARD AND THE SOUTHDOWN SHEEP

The NZ Meat Board has had and continues to have a huge influence on the Southdown sheep ever since its formation in 1922.

While the principles behind the formation of this Board make perfect sense, in researching the history of the Southdown one continually runs into issues which with the benefit of hindsight make one wonder if in fact the good for the exportation of prime NZ meat overall was outweighed by the effect their policies had on the Southdown sheep down through its history.

While this history is not here to make definitive statements, it is necessary I believe to highlight the purpose of the NZ Meat Board versus the outcomes that the breed experienced.

The NZ Meat Board was formed following a classic example of ‘boom and bust’. For the first 30 years of meat exporting, New Zealand farmers produced an ever increasing amount of mutton and lamb for the British market.

The First World War led to a call for New Zealand farmers to produce as much as possible – and to a confirmed buyer with the money to pay for it. But when the wartime contract ended on June 30, 1920, there was more than 180,000 tonnes of meat in storage in New Zealand – equivalent to a full season’s production.

When this volume hit the Smithfield market in London, chaos resulted. Prices tumbled and to make matters worse, post-wartime transport prices had risen.

New Zealand Prime Minister Massey called for the creation of a board of control representing all sectors of the industry. The Meat Export Control Act was passed in 1922 and allowed the New Zealand Meat Producers Board provision to:

  • Assume control over all export meat;
  • Prohibit or limit exports;
  • Impose a levy on beef, sheep, goat and horse products;
  • Negotiate all shipping contracts;
  • Lay down conditions on grading, handling, storage and insurance;
  • Arrange promotions
  • Make any arrangements it considered necessary for the sale and disposal of New Zealand meat.

A person or entity wishing to export meat had to be licensed by the Board, a provision that still exists. The Meat Board’s involvement in the industry has modified over the years. For a brief period in the 1980s it was even involved in the selling of meat.

Powers for the ability to assume control over export meat were relinquished when a new act was passed in 1997, removing their full control, and the perceived ability to favour one section of the market.

I believe the Southdown Sheep Society which was formed only four years after the Meat Board was probably also thinking that they would have more power as an individual bargaining agent for one breed with the Meat Board, rather than as just one of many breeds within the NZ Sheepbreeders Society.

The biggest influence they would have on the breed was that they set the conditions for grading. As the Meat Board changed grading conditions, so the farmer had to change the type of animal he produced to satisfy market demand.

My negative opening comments about the NZ Meat Board relate to the ways they implemented these changes, sometimes it appears as though they were being reactive, not proactive in understanding the requirements of the international market. I may be doing them a disservice as communication was obviously nowhere near the level of today, nor the reports or technology to measure all this information, but research still shows that some of NZ’s leading stockmen still had a better idea of what a good animal was than what the Board were pushing out to the average commercial farmer via grading, and hence payment.

While at the time of writing, he was probably a lot more polite and not making too many bold statements, or causing any conflict, I believe the effect on the Southdown is probably best summarised by a Life Member of the Southdown Sheep Society Mr T E M (Melville) Brooks in an article he wrote in 1978 reflecting back on the Southdown over the century and in support of some of my findings around the Meat Board and their influence on the Southdown I have reproduced his article below.

SOUTHDOWNS HAVE MET MARKET CHALLENGE – COUNTRY LIFE 1978

T.E.M Brooks

T.E.M Brooks

By T.E.M. Brooks “Glenrowan: Brookside.

In a world of continuing change the animal breeder has found that due to varying demands by consumers he has been subjected to continuing pressure for improvement or alteration in the type of animal offered to the market place.

The Southdown breed has not been immune from this state of affairs, which from time to time has created a real challenge to breeders to redirect their breeding operations in such a way as to meet the requirements specified by those in the meat industry and consumers at our markets.

When one looks back to the period from the commencement of this century until the late 1920s, the Southdowns were a very long legged, light boned, little spring of rib, with little wool on the head and legs but were a sheep of great length of body. Incidentally it was during this period that sheep men developed the lamb which proved so popular and came under the name of “Prime Canterbury”. It is interesting to remember that this lamb was mainly by the Southdown ram out of the English Leicester half-bred ewes.

From the early 1930s we became involved in the drive for an early maturing milk lamb with emphasis on a shorter carcase, leg on each corner type and carrying more wool. Older breeders will remember the intense activity in the business of importing rams from England carrying these characteristics and names of great studs come to mind, such as Luton Hoo, Ford, Aldenham and Galtan Park along with many others.

This period up until the sixties saw a boom period for breeders and this changed type of sheep manifested itself in every flock in New Zealand.

Leaner type lamb

In the early sixties, however, the mumblings became evident to all that consumer requirements were changing and a leaner type of lamb was more desirable. This situation created a real challenge to breeders to turn the full circle and return to more of the type of sheep prevailing at the turn of the century.

With the continuing cry going out for less fat on our lambs for export, and the Southdown at this time being the predominant prime lamb sire in use, it was only natural that the breed should receive the blame from a confusing and at times fickle market. The so called consumer demand is difficult to define and extremely confusing as over the years conflicting reports from the powers that be in the meat industry, breeders, butchers and consumers come to hand at regular intervals.

The ewe must play a part in the scheme of things and I cannot accept the criticism leveled at the Southdown was either justified or proved in fact. Any lamb sired by any of the many prime lamb breeds, given a good milking mother and ample feed and killed at eight to ten weeks old will be in danger of being classed as over fat under the present rigid grading regulations.

In conclusion let me say that from my experience I have every confidence that these easy kept, good thriving and good survival rate at birth sheep must go forward into the future, continuing to play a major role in the New Zealand prime lamb industry.

Any alteration within a breed which must occur by selection must inevitably be slow but I am sure it can now be recognized that great advances have been achieved by the Southdown breeders of this country to breed a type of sheep which will enhance our reputation overseas as lamb producers.

 

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