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Beyond the Bale : June 2019
28 ON FARM Over 40 years, Jim led an at times rowdy revolution in breeding, one consistently focussed on producing fast- growing, highly aligned fibres of low fibre curvature and low inter-fibre variation in diameter, from sheep which became increasingly plain, early maturing, and of a non-mules type. As Jim openly acknowledged, there were a number of key scientific foundations for what later became the SRS breeding program. The first major foundation was laid by Harold Burnell (H.B.) Carter, a graduate of the University of Sydney’s School of Veterinary Science in 1932. Carter and his team at the McMaster Laboratory mapped out the follicular traits of all major Merino strains and breeds of sheep, and Jim Watts, who graduated from the same veterinary school 40 years later, built on these foundations in exploring the links between skin attributes and fleece rot. The second foundation came in 1975, when CSIRO’s Neville Jackson, Ted Nay and Helen Newton-Turner had published a pioneering analysis of the likely genetic controls over fleece attributes, concluding that it was possible to produce a long and dense but fine fleece, through simultaneous selection for a high number of secondary to primary follicles, and long and deep follicles. Over the following decade, Jackson, Maddocks, Lax, and Moore uncovered the critical role of the REMEMBERING AN INNOVATOR With the passing of Dr Jim Watts in January 2019, Australia lost a passionate and innovative scientist, educator, and sheep, angora goat and alpaca breeder. As a company dedicated to innovation in the wool industry, AWI acknowledges the contribution Dr Watts made to sheep breeding innovation. In this article, industry consultant Dr Paul Swan reviews some of the technical and educational foundations of what became the SRS breeding program. primary follicle in influencing secondary follicle development in the foetus and explored the implications for wool quality. This team was ultimately defunded and disbanded by CSIRO following the launch of the short lived WOOLPLAN national sheep breeding scheme. Jim, a first-hand witness to this as a collaborator with the team, moved into private practice and sought to extend their work and to bridge the gap between histology and practical sheep breeding. THE STUD INDUSTRY Another key element in the story is Jim’s extensive early collaboration with Merino studs and with some notable sheep classers, including John Coy. Through the 1970s and 1980s, studs generously and repeatedly provided Jim and other researchers with access to sheep and so too wool and skin specimens. Jim kept detailed records of his observations of the thousands of stud sheep he had seen, and it was when pondering these records in 1989, Jim had his key intuition that fibre bundles, not thick staples, were the basic unit of the fleece – that thick locks were a function of entanglement, not true follicle density. It was also from his engagement with leading breeders that Jim developed the complementary frame/wool mating approach which underpinned the ensuing commercial sheep classing system he developed. THE WRIST PROGRAM A final foundation was the WRIST Elite Wool: Fibre to Fabric Program – a pioneering national grower education program, which attracted $500,000 in Commonwealth funding, and cemented Jim’s national profile. The WRIST workshops were both ground-breaking and also conducted at break-neck speed. Over three years, this program delivered 81 woolgrower workshops to 3,300 woolgrowers, conducted 35 advanced wool preparation workshops and 38 wool processor workshops, and held an international tour. The workshops were empowering for the farmers who attended – increasing their understanding of wool production, preparation, and processing. Eighty per cent changed their sheep breeding or wool production practices in accordance with what they had learnt – a record I think has never been bettered. LEGACIES Jim Watts went on to commercialise the SRSTM breeding program, and to lead thereafter industry thinking of the production of highly fertile, non-mules Merinos of outstanding staple length and wool quality. Jim’s teachings on the importance of secondary derived follicle contributed to the 2002 initiation of the AWI-funded Lifetime Wool Program, which led directly to the now highly successful Lifetime Ewe Management (LTEM) Program. Jim was a strong advocate and early support in the establishment by MLA and AWI of MERINOSELECT. The excellent quality, wide accessibility and immense practicality of the Elite Wool workshops also established a new standard for grower education workshops – how to communicate science with passion and clarity, and in a practical and respectful manner to the people who fund it. A newspaper clip of the early WRIST team. (The Land, May 4, 1995.) The eventual SRS Merino. (Image courtesy of SRS website.)