Neal Fogarty - full interview

It is not often that one gets to participate in an industry revolution as has occurred in the lamb industry over the last couple of decades, where it has gone from being regarded as a by-product of the wool industry to a vibrant and highly profitably industry in its own right that embraces new technology and has dramatically improved productivity and consumer appeal.

Neal Fogarty has worked in the lamb industry for over forty years. In that time there have been many highlights for Neal and the sheep research team in NSW DPI. NSW DPI interviewed Neal in March 2008, shortly after his retirement. Neal now works for the Department in a part-time capacity as a Post-Retirement Research Fellow based at Orange Agricultural Institute.

DPI: What was the Australian sheep and wool industry like when you started out? What have been the more significant developments that you have observed during your career?

NF: There was a structured crossbreeding system that effectively utilised the Merino to produce crossbred ewes in the marginal farming and pastoral areas that were then crossed to terminal sire rams in more intensive areas for 2nd cross lamb production.

The system developed in the early 1900’s and had not changed much since then, with genetic merit based on showring and visual assessment. The lamb industry comprised small mixed farming enterprises with few specialist producers and was seen as a by-product of the wool industry.

There was poor profitability and fortunes were linked to the wool industry. During the 1970’s and 80’s terminal sire breeders became interested in making greater genetic improvement using objective measurement, initially for growth and subsequently for reducing fat and increasing muscle when practical techniques for measurement in live sheep and the genetic evaluation systems began to be developed.

However the 1980’s was a depressed time for prices and profitability in the lamb industry with consumers turning away from lamb -  the product and industry had to change to survive -  and it did "The Lamb Revolution"!

DPI: What exactly was the "lamb revolution" -  can you outline some of those stages and what the Department’s role was?

NF: Successful revolutions don’t just happen. They require planning, cooperation, organisation, dedication, persistence and a commitment to succeed.

In the late 1980’s the industry was fragmented and dispirited, with low auction prices for lambs, a product that was a loss leader in supermarkets and regarded as too fat and wasteful by consumers.

Per capita consumption was declining rapidly (5% pa), production was dominated by the domestic market and it remained a by-product of the wool industry.

DPI: How did the lamb revolution occur?

NF: I think the lamb revolution is a remarkable success story of rural Australia, in which NSW Agriculture (now NSW DPI) played a significant role. A coordinated national program of research, production and product development, marketing and promotion was developed in the early 1990’s to arrest the declining domestic consumption and boost exports.

The Meat Research Corporation, now Meat and Livestock Australia (MLA), coordinated and funded the program with NSW Agriculture taking a leading role in the research, production and domestic marketing areas.

The early successes in demonstrating commercial advantages and production possibilities for heavier and leaner carcasses led to a combined effort by all stake-holders (producers, processors, retailers, scientists and service providers) to develop a common strategy and plan for the industry.

Profitable export markets were developed by processors with considerable promotional support from MLA and major promotions in the domestic market recognised the changed consumer needs.

The challenges were to provide producers with the information, technology and skills to supply larger and leaner carcasses year-round and to facilitate changes in marketing that better rewarded those who matched the new market requirements.

Genetic improvement was identified as a key strategy for producing heavier and leaner carcasses from faster growing lambs. As it was then, NSW Agriculture developed and implemented LAMBPLAN, the national genetic evaluation program, which has now been transferred to industry.

R&D support for LAMBPLAN continues and NSW DPI leads major MLA supported projects to achieve greater genetic improvement in the maternal breeding sector and lamb production management systems.

Production and marketing groups were formed and alliances developed with processors and retailers to improve profitability and consistency of lamb quality and supply.

Meat science R&D has highlighted the importance of pre and post slaughter handling on meat quality. The Department has also contributed to the development and implementation of video image technology in abattoir slaughter chains to estimate commercial meat yield of lamb carcasses.

The past decade has seen a major culture shift with lamb now viewed as an industry in its own right and all the players in the production chain seen as professionals in the food and entertainment business.

The NSW DPI Lamb Team of research, advisory and support staff has made significant contributions to the revolution. This recognition has resulted in the team attracting over $3 million in industry R&D funds over the past decade.

DPI: When you talk about "meat science R&D" the average person on the street would not know what that means. Can you outline some of the specific programs that the Department has been involved with?

NF: Well, there are a lot of projects that NSW DPI has either led or been involved in. For example:

  • Meat science R&D has been a focus of the team. Work done by John Thompson in the 1970s provided the basis for carcase measurement techniques that are still in use. Yield equations for the Trim Lamb range of cuts introduced by Australian Meat Livestock Corporation (AMLC) in 1983 were researched by David Hopkins, who has also contributed to a national project aimed at optimising sheepmeats eating quality. This work has highlighted the importance of processing procedures on sheepmeats eating quality. The team has also contributed to the development of video image analysis for lamb carcase meat yield by conducting a complex yield experiment covering the range of Australian genotypes.
  • The former NSW Agriculture initiated the Cowra Dorset Ewe Competition in the 1970s to identify superior animals within studs and demonstrate the genetic variation that exists. This was the first to use technology to measure fat depth on live stud animals. In combination with liveweight measurements this gave a good indication of the sheep’s genetic potential for carcase yield in its progeny.
  • in 1980 the Meatsheep Testing Service was set up at Cowra Agricultural Research and Advisory Station to provide the first growth and fat genetic evaluation service for meatsheep breeders in Australia (Alan Luff OIC). After eight years of development the NSW MTS was expanded to a national project LAMBPLAN in 1989 with support from industry and Dr Robert Banks was appointed as the National Coordinator. The development of LAMBPLAN involved the estimation of previously unavailable genetic parameters for a comprehensive range of traits in Australian meatsheep, development of state of the art statistical procedures and computer software to allow estimated breeding values (EBVs) of animals to be compared across flocks and implementation of on farm genetic improvement programs. In 1997 the LAMBPLAN project was handed over to MLA to allow full commercialisation and industry ownership. It now tests over 70% of all terminal sires used throughout Australia.
  • Many other initiatives of the Department’s Lamb Team contributed to the developments such as: marketing, carcass ticketing in abattoirs and over the hooks trading, objective measurement ram sales, retail product development, branded alliances and participation in strategic planning with industry.
  • We participated as one of three Australian sites (Shannon Vale Field Station) for the centralised evaluation of industry terminal sires (Chris Shands project leader from  1994- 1997?) and led and coordinated (Neal Fogarty) the national maternal sire central evaluation from 1997 to current, with Cowra ARS as the major site.

DPI: It is a reminder, isn’t it, that science and innovation have long lead-times*. Can you explain, briefly, what sheep genetics is?

NF: Sheep genetics can be defined at various levels, but essentially it is a description of the genetic make-up of the sheep. The DNA code that is passed from one generation to the next and understanding how the DNA affects the performance of sheep for particular traits and the underlying physiological mechanisms involved.

It is about the tools that scientists develop to relate information about the performance of animals which allows the evaluation of their genetic merit. It is the breeding programs put in place by sheep breeders in the industry to enhance genetic improvement of sheep.

In the end it is about rapidly improving the overall genetic merit of sheep to produce marketable products profitably and sustainably.

DPI: In his book1 Ted Henzell writes that the chances of finding genuine dual-purpose breeds are "very slim indeed." He does end by saying "modern genetics might be able to do better?" Do you agree?

NF: Most sheep produce wool and meat. The key to success is to produce the products that are profitable for the sheep you run in your environment.

There are specialist breeds that have particular characteristics. For example, Merinos produce superfine wool, Poll Dorsets produce fast growing and muscular lambs.

However there is considerable genetic variation within breeds and a wide range in performance with considerable overlap between individuals across breeds for most traits.

For centuries breeds with different characteristics have been crossed to produce new breeds. However increasingly in the lamb industry (and even in the wool industry) outstanding individuals are being used for breeding with the breed being a secondary consideration.

Modern genetics is providing the tools to allow breeders to meet their breeding goals much more efficiently and quickly adapt to changing environments and markets.

DPI: What are some of the more significant changes to R&D, in agriculture in particular, over the term of your 40-year career?

NF: In sheep genetics in particular, the developments in computing capacity and associated tools for genetic evaluation of animals.

These developments have allowed massive amounts of data on industry animals to be captured and the algorithms developed to allow genetic comparison of animals across flocks (and in some cases across breeds).

LAMBPLAN has been an integral part of this and the sheep genetics group in NSW DPI have played a major role in its development and implementation in industry in the early days.

DPI: From an R&D perspective in particular, what are some of your thoughts on the future outlook of the industry?

NF: I am very optimistic about the lamb industry. That is not to say it can rest on its laurels, either. I think the industry challenges ahead are:

  • lack of supply of lamb to meet the increasing demand especially in the export market;
  • an ongoing need to improve eating quality and its consistency of quality and supply;
  • maintaining a high level of food safety;
  • developing new products and markets; and continuing to reduce the cost of production by improved genetics and on-farm management and adoption of processing innovations;
  • continuing to modify the marketing system to a value-based system that rewards producers for supplying lambs that meet customer and consumer requirements consistently. This includes aspects of human health and nutrition such as iron and Omega 3; and
  • resolving fragmentation and political division in the wool industry.

The other cause for pessimism is the long term future of the research providers and educators to maintain the capacity to adequately service the industry.

But on the positive side, the incorporation of whole genome scan information into the current quantitative EBVs (estimated breeding values) has the potential to make a big contribution to genetic improvement in the next decade or so.

DPI: Thanks for your time.
NF:  Pleasure.

1. Henzell, T (2007) Australian agriculture: its history and challenges CSIRO Melbourne.