Last update: March 27, 2012 12:20:39 PM E-mail Print




C.V. Pettit

S.A. Fleece Testing Centre



Group breeding first made its appearance in South Africa in 1971, with the formation of "The Downs" and "Lowestoffe' Merino groups in the Cathcart district of the eastern Cape. It is interesting to note that objective measurement and recording of production traits gave rise to the idea which culminated in group breeding, first in New Zealand and Australia in 1967 and four years later in South Africa.

Like most unconventional ideas, group breeding, using commercial animals for the purpose of breeding ram replacements, was initially regarded with a great deal of scepticism. It is therefore understandable that acceptance of the concept was limited and few new groups were formed until the viability of the two pilot groups became evident. The publicity which was given to group breeding by a visit to the Republic in 1976 by members of a large and well-established group breeding scheme in Australia undoubtedly gave the idea a great deal more credibility and resulted in the initiation of a number of new groups, including beef cattle, other sheep breeds and an Angora goat group. Although most groups are located in the eastern Cape, where the concept first originated, group 'breeding schemes are now successfully operating in all four provinces of the country. It is encouraging to note that there is increasing interest from the stud sector. Several groups are already operating with registered animals, which bodes well for the livestock industry.



Just as most ideas are conceived and become viable because of a need, group breeding has also filled a vacuum in the livestock industry. It is no coincidence that this system of breeding should have taken root in the sour veld region of the eastern Cape, where the natural grazing is incapable of supporting the normal growth and reproduction levels in animals during certain periods of the year. Traditionally-bred Merino flocks, predominant in this area, were poorly adapted to these adverse conditions, chiefly because ram replacements were being bred under more favourable conditions.

To overcome-this problem, new breeds had been evolved and many breeders were either crossing their Merino flocks with sires from these breeds or using them on a limited scale on an experimental basis. For breeders wishing to keep their Merino flocks pure, group breeding appeared to be the only viable alternative for breeding Merinos suited to their environment. This has probably been the strongest motivation for the adoption of this breeding system in this and other areas of the country. It is, no doubt, also the main reason that most groups operate with commercial animals.

Apart from group control over breeding policy, the inability to assess the genetic merit of rams bred in other environments and the replacement of sires at prices which were both realistic and in relation to their breeding value were very real incentives for the establishment of group breeding schemes.



The open system of breeding, in which a breeder integrates his large commercial flock with a nucleus of highly-selected animals for the purpose of breeding his own sire replacements, is by no means new to the livestock industry. The application of this principle in a group context is, however, a radical departure from traditional breeding systems and has only been applied in animal breeding since as recently as 1967.

All groups in South Africa operate as two-tier systems, the nucleus or central flock being established by the screening of group members' flocks for the highest producers. Contributions from the foundation flocks continue at a lower level, and supply half the annual female replacements in the nucleus after it has reached the predetermined number of animals.

In the absence of production records of older animals, selection of foundation stock has, in most cases, been restricted to maiden ewes. Since between-flock genetic differences were unknown, an equal proportion of females was selected from each flock. Most groups have, until recently, followed the same procedure of selecting the top third of available ewes on body weight, followed by hand and eye selection during which this group is reduced to about one half or one sixth of the original number of animals available. Final selection is based mainly on fleece weight after shearing. Before transfer to the nucleus the necessary dipping and inoculation of ewes is carried out.

With the establishment of the first Merino groups with registered animals, selection criteria for foundation stocks were more sophisticated, the best ewes being selected on their reproductive performance.

After years of production and reproduction records became available in the first two Merino groups and the need to refine selection methods for contributed ewes became apparent. These groups have now also taken the decision to accept animals in the nucleus only on their performance after first lambing.

In the nucleus or central flock all selection, after a preliminary culling for functional and non-measurable wool faults, is based on performance test results supplied by the "National Wool Sheep Performance and Progeny Testing Scheme". Under this scheme Departmental advice and assistance has been available since the first groups were initiated. Data accumulated from a large number of ewe records is at present being processed by the Fleece Testing Centre with the object of supplying breeders with an annually updated ewe productivity rating.



The interchange of animals between the nucleus and scheme participants is an important feature of group breeding, and can be accommodated in various ways. In New Zealand, for example, a number of groups operate as companies or syndicates with the outright purchase of breeding stock and the sharing of profits in preference to the more common exchange system. Groups in South Africa have, however, elected to operate on a flexible exchange basis, whereby a predetermined number of females are exchanged for one sire.

A carefully drawn-up constitution protects the interests of all parties and ensures the continuity of the group in the event of the death or insolvency of a nucleus manager, who is normally elected from the group members by majority consent.



An important development in the Merino sheep breeding industry in South Africa was the establishment of the "Breed Society for Performance Tested Merinos" several years before the advent of group breeding in this country.

While this society was negotiating with the Merino Stud Breeders' Association, the S.A. Stud Book Association and the Department of Agriculture to gain recognition as a registered breed society, group breeding schemes comprising pure Merinos were offered membership of this society. All existing groups exercised this option and have now, together with their host body, become incorporated in the newly-formed Merino Stud Breeders' Society, on a separate register known as the "Performance Test Register.”

Until such time as the breeding value of animals in different environments can be determined on a national level, group breeding, with its advantage of large genetic pools, high selection intensities and self-sufficiency in respect of ram replacements of known breeding value, will continue to be a viable proposition to progressively-minded breeders.



Arena, Vol 8, No 3, 1985