New Zealand’s agricultural sector has an image to uphold – internationally, our farmers and livestock have a top-class reputation.
“The advantage we have is we maintain a very good disease-free status in our livestock,” Lincoln University professor of animal breeding and genetics Jon Hickford tells The Detail.
“Our sheep and our cows don’t have diseases seen commonly elsewhere in the world. That places a premium on our livestock.”
He says the basis of the livestock trade these days is genetics – to improve breeding, both within New Zealand and offshore.
Waikato dairy farmer David Fullerton is well known in the industry for his use of genetics. He trades to improve the performance of his stock.
“A bit like the racehorse industry, [farmers] want to have something that runs a little bit faster than the rest and the dairy industry’s the same,” he says.
“They want to have cattle that are efficient … good size without being enormous – they’ve got to be able to move around so they’ve got to have good feet and legs … then they’ve got to have healthy milk.”
Fullerton began importing to get traits from North American cattle, but it’s more common these days to export.
“If [farmers] couldn’t access them quarantine-wise say out of Canada or the US, their next port of call was New Zealand and they knew that we had those type of genetics that were available in Canada and the US – and that’s how we got into exporting live bulls, embryos, heifers to all parts of the world.”
Fullerton has used live shipments by sea and air to export. He’s also sent embryos offshore.
Shipments by sea have been used to send young cattle.
“They’re surplus cattle that people have, running around, generally towards the bottom end of what we’re selling.”
Air freight is high-cost, and runs to a tight schedule. That means it’s used for elite stock, like breeding bulls or heifers.
“The ones that I send on air freight are about 10 times the value of the ones that go on surface, perhaps 20 times,” Fullerton says.
As for embryos, Fullerton says the paper trail is “very long”.
“It needs to be, because you’re generally paying a lot of money for them.”
Despite statistics saying live exports by sea have represented only 0.32 percent of New Zealand’s primary sector export revenue, Fullerton believes the ban on live exports by ship – which has just come into effect – is a “real backwards step”.
“Things had to improve but boy they have improved … it’s quite staggering the comfort on the high seas that they have these days.”
Hickford says although farmers have lost a market opportunity, the ban could improve New Zealand’s image.
“Our stock had value putting them on boats and sending them overseas and people were making money out of it.
“But that is aside from the other issue which is the welfare issue. As we trade in livestock products, be it milk or meat or whatever around the world or wool products, then we want people to perceive our products positively, we want our industries to be perceived as being world-leading or elite-quality … the hope is [the ban] makes our production systems look even better.”
He says genetics are solving some important issues for the industry, such as one he’s working on at the moment.
“Overseas, they’ve identified a gene that affects how animals respond to heat stress and it was found in tropical cattle. We’re looking at how that gene may affect dairy cows in New Zealand.
”It’s been brought into New Zealand by way of the transfer of genetic material. When they get heat stressed they don’t produce as much milk. It’s an animal wellbeing, welfare issue … that’s becoming more and more important of course as we go down this pathway of climate change and we’re probably facing down the barrel of one of the warmer years again this year.”
Hear more about livestock genetics and how they’re sent around the world in the full podcast episode.
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