Genetics key to helping farmers as they deal with climate change
Adapting to a changing environment will become increasingly important as the realities of climate change will be felt on farms, an AgResearch scientist says. Speaking at the New Zealand Grassland Association Conference in Invercargill, senior scientist and animal geneticist, Tricia Johnson, said it was difficult to find one's way through all the noise about climate change , but farmers could find opportunities in the challenges. The first step was to admit that we were seeing changes to the climate and that New Zealand had recently experienced some of the hottest summers in history, Johnson said. A warmer climate in future would mean that heat stress and disease resistance would become important management challenges, she said. READ MORE: * Cows with less gas in the tank to help farmers arrive at their climate targets * Difficult tasks ahead say Waikato Farmers following climate commission's report * Funding boost gives methane vaccine a better shot However, there were already tools that could be used to address these issues, she said. Most New Zealand sheep breeds were originally from temperate climates and these traditional breeds would not hack it in future, Johnson said. Research on how animals handled heat stress would become increasingly important, along with research on how sheep from warmer climates could be crossbred to local stock. Warmer temperatures on farms also meant parasites survived longer and that the winter cold did not kill them. This meant there was a larger parasite burden that farmers had to deal with, Johnson said. On her own farm in Otago, she could see how warmer temperatures changed the disease risk profile of the farm. In Southland, for example, there were farmers who found very high faecal egg counts in winter and farmers had to adapt their toolbox to deal with these issues, she said. Drenches failed in some cases, and farmers could adapt by choosing to bring animals into flocks that had better disease or parasite resistance. Breeders will have to begin breeding animals that are more resistant to disease. Genetics were a good way to address this issue. Increasing regulatory changes could also be met head on by adapting, for example, regulatory changes by the Ministry for Primary Industries meant the way tail-docking was managed would change but there were sheep breeds available locally and overseas that had shorter tails, she said. Such sheep might not even need to be docked. Breeding with these sheep not only addressed the regulatory requirements but had the additional benefit that less labour was needed in a time when most farmers struggled to find workers. Some of these sheep also had less wool on their backsides and bellies, and would need to be dagged less. Breeding with them therefore also addressed labour and animal health challenges, she said. A breeding programme that tested these animals' cross-breeding potential was needed. This would tick regulatory boxes but would have additional on farm benefits. Instead of focusing on the fact that there was another regulation farmers had to face, they could look at what wins they gained when they adapted, she said. The New Zealand Grassland Association Conference opened in Invercargill on Tuesday and runs until Thursday. The theme of the 83rd conference is Grazing the deep south.