Science raises the bar

The scientist who revolutionised the use of animal genetics in the sheep, beef and deer industries is retiring after almost 40 years.

For the past four decades, Dr Geoff Nicoll has been the leading breeding scientist for Landcorp, which merged its genetics division with Rissington Breedline to form Focus Genetics in 2011.

Nicoll has headed the largest animal breeding programmes in the world, responsible for about 500,000 ewes, 70,000 beef cows and 65,000 hinds.

"I've been fortunate enough to have the best job in the world. No one else has had the same level of resources that I've had at my fingertips," says Nicoll.

The leading scientist changed the game in animal genetics and overturned the mindset of breeding to produce champion animals by looking at raising the average of the flock or herd using sires with the best combinations of fertility, growth, meat yield, fleece weight and disease resistance.

"It was like throwing a pebble into the middle of a pool. You throw in the genetics, and the ripple spreads out to the edge. You just want to go further. As a result, more and more farmers can now monitor and genetically improve production.

"I was able to work from an open book and I've been fortunate enough to really make a difference in science for the benefit of New Zealand farmers."


"Everyone thought we were mad. But the CT scanning enabled us to measure the amount of meat on the live animal. We didn't have to kill it, which was brilliant. Suddenly we could select for meat yield in live animals and use them in the breeding programme.

"At Landcorp we were leading the world by using CT scanning for animal breeding programmes in sheep and deer. No one had ever seen such a huge genetic improvement."

Another highlight in Nicoll's career was developing a composite terminal sire sheep breed, lamb supreme, which is now one of Focus Genetics' popular breeds.

"We've been able to take the best genetics and develop animals that are commercially beneficial for the country."

Nicoll has collected large volumes of performance data on animals to scale up breeding flocks and herds.

"It's so satisfying to see research and development paying off. We're trying to develop the best animals. It was a challenge at first because farmers were resistant to change. But they're now seeing the benefit of superior genetics.

"When I first started it was difficult to see evidence of genetic improvement. We just had to work on a gut feeling that we were doing the right thing. But when I saw the first set of properly analysed genetic trend results I realised we'd been right. I couldn't wipe the grin off my face.

"I've witnessed a huge change in farming. There is now a good combination of genetics and management on farms because farmers can see the value in the science."

Nicoll has travelled the world showcasing New Zealand's successful animal breeding model and more recently toured Uruguay.

"There is no other country in the world which has a suite of breeding programmes on Focus Genetics' scale. We have a unique co-ordinated approach to the development of genetics in a commercial operation."

Focus Genetics chief executive Gavin Foulsham says Nicoll will leave a big gap in the animal breeding industry.

"We congratulate Geoff for the significant contribution he has made to breeding programmes in New Zealand and around the world. He leaves behind a strong legacy that we look forward to building on."

Nicoll will stay on with Focus Genetics part-time to help train another scientist.

- Hamilton News

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