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Flocks to Mobs
by Gregor Ingram
In the Autumn of 2011 I heard about a shepherding competition, with the fantastic prize of a trip to New Zealand!
One problem… I can’t shear sheep. Well I say that, I have shorn the odd sheep before and many a hogg’s belly, but I had this fear of looking like a fool against seasoned professionals. With this in mind I headed up the road one night in the bid to learn how to shear properly. Tony Willoxs and Charles McCombie offered to give me some pointers, which was great with Tony’s past glories in the competition world. As for putting a hand piece together my plan was to wing it and if it held together that was a bonus.
The competition itself was held at the fantastic new cattle building at Oatridge. As I pulled up I saw the familiar face of noted Texel breeder, David Gray. Little did I know he would become a lot more familiar in the upcoming months!
We were set a number of tasks relating to day-to-day shepherding, the first a written quiz about sheep. I think I had an advantage here, over the other competitors, due to my degree in agriculture, as we are taught legislations and diseases not readily known by most Scottish sheep farmers. Following this we were faced with practical elements; including grading fat lambs, applying a dose and injection in a handling system, feet management, quad bike skills and shearing. I felt comfortable with most of the tasks, with the exception of a moment of horror when it was revealed that three sheep were to be shorn not two. I now have a huge respect for the skill and endurance of professional sheep shearers.
The results were announced and David was ranked first with me in second place, to my total surprise. David said “we are going to know each other a lot better by the end of this,” and off we went to New Zealand.
We were greeted at Heathrow by Katie Brian, our appointed chaperone and met the other UK competitors. The sponsorship and support was unbelievable, as we were granted the tickets to go out and come home giving the chance for UK competitors to stay out longer and experience New Zealand. Instantly the Welsh, English, N Irish and Scottish became friends and argued which country had the best sheep.
Once we arrived in Christchurch we were met by a team of people from Beef and Lamb NZ (B & L), who would be the equivalent to QMS here. They took us all to a hotel and we ate at a reception put on for the competitors by the B & L team, it was there that it was revealed that the World Young Shepherding Finals was the brain child of one of the French delegates. We had the chance to speak with competitors from all round the world including Europe, Australia, South America and the USA.
It was now time to get into competition mode, I had thought I would be clever and do some revision on the competition but unfortunately so had everyone else. Competition day differed from the Scottish heats as it was based around NZ sheep systems. We had to erect a fence, shed and count sheep, operate an ATV, change a tyre, identify diseases and cuts of meat and shear sheep. The fencing was for me the most challenging task as In Scotland generally fencing is contracted and rarely is an electric permanent fence built. I ended up forgetting the knots we had been shown as it fell to bits and I just tried to build a sheep proof one with any old knot. Another stumbling block for the UK competitors was the revolutionary upside down worming bottle. Or in fact right way up as we were told, where the tube was at the top. Seems logical. All in all the day went fine, although the subtle differences between our systems and NZ let me know I had not won.
The next day was the shepherds sprint. Apparently a tradition in NZ Young Farmer competitions, where you had to complete farming and non-farming tasks more quickly than your opponents. This involved mixing lambs milk and drinking it unfortunately, putting a chain saw together and making a pavlova, to name but a few. Team Scotland came fourth overall, NZ won, the Welsh cheated.
For me the trips were the best part of my experience, where we had the chance to see many different walks of life. The Pekeuri meat-processing plant in Oamaru was visited one of the highlights. It was owned by the huge Alliance Meats Ltd based out of the South Island. I had never seen scale like it with annual throughputs from Alliance meats reaching 7 million lambs, 1 million sheep, 150,000 cattle and 130,000 deer. The Pekeuri plant itself when on full capacity slaughtered up to 14,000 lambs a day, employing nearly 1000 staff, processing 24 hours a day. What amazed me most was the fact that the company was owned by 5,000 farming shareholders, producing 85% of the stock processed, showing a link between all aspects of the supply chain, with an obvious intent on being profitable and sustainable. What puts all this in a greater state of perspective is that Alliance Meats produce over 15% of the world’s exported lamb and sheep meat.
The other visit, which I found extremely interesting, was the trip to Lone Star Farms by kind permission of Tom Sturgess. Mr Sturgess has too many businesses and achievements to list, but to name a few he was at one time the Chief Executive of the largest Printing company in the US and owned a chain of pig processing plants, where he processed over a third of all pigs in the US. IT was a true honor to hear him speak and his enthusiasm and lack of respect for anything he did not believe in was inspirational. He has built this business around 7 properties and at its peak every year holds 170,000 stock units. A stock unit is calculated as a ewe with one lamb being one unit or a cow with a calf being up to six units. Although some stock would be fattening and sold at this peak it is still an extremely large scale in comparison to anything in Scotland.
To me New Zealanders are very resolute in their ability as farmers, and use the media to tell the world that they have the best stock and management in the world. However from what I have seen I believe that their marketing surpasses the stock themselves and that they have the same problems with management as here in Scotland – just scaled up. The growing season there is longer, although there are drought ridden spots which suffer.
I feel very proud of the quality of stock in Scotland and think it is second to none and with management and technology becoming more efficient by the day it will have a long and prosperous future in the world meat market.
My experience was one I will never forget, and for me personally the people I met and the things I saw out shadowed the competition. New friends and business contacts have been made and I urge any young shepherd to get out there and enter the competition or travel to get a view from outside the box of their own business.