French Genetics for New Zealand Sheep

August 2014

Charollais and Ile de France breeds are being introduced to a sheep breeding business

Long-time Romney sheep breeder Murray Rohloff and Poll Dorset and Dorset Horn breeders Peter and Matt Ponsonby have a joint venture breeding company to import, use, multiply and sell genetics from two French sheep breeds, Charollais and Ile de France. They believe both breeds have a lot to offer the NZ sheep industry, the Charollais as a terminal sire for fast-growing, high-yielding lambs on pasture and the Ile de France as a hardy, medium-micron, high-bulk woolled cross with both Merinos and Romneys.

New Zealand has high biosecurity barriers against sheep importation, mainly to avoid scrapie, a very infectious and degenerative disease of the central nervous system related to bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE). After a big effort in the 1980’s to bring in East Friesian, Finns and Texels from Europe, it has only been possible to access new sheep genetics from Australia which is scrapie-free. The possibility may now exist to import germplasm from Europe, either frozen embryos or semen, from older sheep (as scrapie disease affects young sheep) and from the most resistant genotypes. Charollais NZ partnership is investigating that route to widen its Charollais and Ile de France bloodlines.

Murray Rohloff imported the first Australian Charollais semen in 2009 and Peter Ponsonby independently made his own study tour of the UK in that year and came to the conclusion that some of the types of Charollais he saw would offer something extra to the NZ sheep industry. They formed a joint company in 2010 and imported from Australia frozen embryos and semen from diverse pedigrees. The semen was used over Poll Dorset Texel-cross ewes and the crossbred lambs exceeded expectations.

The Ponsonby family’s Douglas Downs farm at Tuapeka West is a large-scale ram breeding business selling more than 100 rams a year. It is home to the Charollais and Ile de France joint ventures.

The characteristics of the Charollais breed when used as a terminal sire include fast lamb growth on pasture with high meat yields. That combination is ideal, as other terminal sires may have either, but not both, says Murray Rohloff. Even the Charollais crossbred lambs inherit the long frame, due to an extra 13th rib, a wedge-shaped body which confers easy birthing from all

ewe types, a fine fleece with a good covering at birth, pinkish-grey faces and naturally polled (without horns). The Charollais NZ partnership believes these characteristics can be obtained with half and three-quarterbred Charollais sires, as well as purebreds they have “bred up” from the Australian importations.

The combination of fast growth and high yields in the lambs sired by these crossbred and pure Charollais rams is particularly attractive and has been demonstrated already through independent and objective carcass assessment, said Murray Rohloff. The crossbred lambs have yielded between 57% and 59% while the few cull purebreds have gone over 60%. “We have also seen those lambs drafted well before lambs from other terminal sires, which saves on the biggest cost of lamb finishing, the use of feed.” In the past three years, Charollais NZ has sold around 450 crossbred and purebred rams and the number of purebreds now farmed in this country is around 500. The objective of the partnership is to build up an elite flock of 200 purebred ewes.

As well as being the source of the sale terminal sires, the NZ Charollais would be “kiwi-ised” with characteristics needed by sheep farmers here, particularly the hill country conditions. The partners want to retain the growth, muscling and easy birthing of Charollais but enhance the pelt quality for NZ conditions.

Prices obtained by Charollais NZ for purebred rams were initially up to $12,000 but reduced to $2000-$5000 as more became available. Murray Rohloff expects crossbred sires to bring an average of $1000, priced to the market to be competitive.

Murray Rohloff trialled five Ile de France sires (using semen imported from Australia) over two years in his fully recorded Romneys and Terminal Composites. Murray was looking for genetics capable of successfully breeding at any time of the year to give NZ farmers the option of lambing as often as they wished in an attempt to convert feed from maintenance to production, producing more lambs per year. A number of farms are keen on lambing three times in two years, which would increase lamb production by as much as 50%.

Murray and Peter Ponsonby met through their common interest and established Ile de France NZ at the Ponsonby’s farm Douglas Downs at Tuapeka West near Lawrence in Otago. Peter’s son Matthew is very involved in the development of the Ile de France breed in NZ. Matt also manages a large lamb finishing operation nearby.

The breeding policy is utilising Peter’s Poll Dorset and Dorset Horn flocks to grade up Ile de France genetics. As with the Charollais, this is being done to “kiwi-ise” the end result. The results are very promising especially those derived from original Dorset Horn crossing. Ultra sound and CT scanning has proven this cross to be extremely muscled.

Ile de France is based on Merino breeds, Rambouillet and Mauchamp. It is a very thick set, highly muscled sheep with mid micron white wool with thick pelts free of pigmentation. It is regarded internationally as having one of the longest breeding seasons of all commercial sheep breeds and is widely used as both a terminal and maternal sire.

According to Murray and Peter, Ile de France sires offer farmers with strong woolled breeds an opportunity to produce crossbred ewe progeny with an extended breeding season without reducing lambing percentage and male lambs which will dress out over 50% with carcass yield equivalent to improved terminal breeds in NZ. The Ile de France sires offer Merino and other fine wool growers an opportunity to produce crossbred ewes with fine wool capable of “Smartwool” and “Icebreaker” contracts coupled with enhanced maternal traits especially survival, with growth and carcass yield equal to improved terminal breeds.

Murray says Ile de France sheep love dry conditions and eating low quality feed. The purebreds and the crosses have white feet and pink noses, do not seem subject to footrot and have high fertility and very good maternal ability.