Wellsford farmer Gordon Levet has been recognised nationally and internationally for breeding sheep that are resistant to parasites and other ailments that plague farmers. His accolades include a citation from the Royal Society for services to agriculture, an innovation award from Beef + Lamb, a Ballance Farm Environment Award, a Sheep Industry Innovation Award and a New Zealander of the Year award among others. Jonathan Killick asked Gordon how it was he foresaw the rise of pharmaceutical resistance and dedicated his life’s work to careful breeding…
I come from a line of non-conformists. My great grandfather was an Albertland settler who controversially decided to grow grapes and make wine. He was an outcast for making alcohol. Local children were told not to play with the Levet kids. But he established five acres in three years and is in the viticultural Hall of Fame for being one of the first to establish the industry in New Zealand. He supplied Government House in Auckland and was visited by Lord Bledisloe.
In 1874, my grandfather bought the farm in Wellsford where I still live today. Back then, Wellsford was called Whakapirau, which means ‘rotten canoe,’ and the locals didn’t like it. The town was renamed using the first letters of each of the local families – the first three letters are ‘Worker,’ ‘Edgar’ and ‘Levet.’ My father established our Romney stud in 1922. It was the first Romney in Northland and an unusual breed at the time, but now it is dominant.
I started my education at Hoteo North School and later at Wellsford District High School. During the war children had to have tape around their neck with three things attached – a name tag, cotton wool for the ears and a cork to put between the teeth, all in case a bomb dropped. The school halls were filled with children making camouflage nets for the army and collecting ergot fungi to make penicillin.
At 17, I took over management of the family stud. When I went to Fielding to buy rams I was the youngest there. Back then, wool reached a ‘pound for a pound’ or about $4. One fleece could buy one-and-a-half pairs of boots. It created a huge boom – New Zealand was riding on the sheep’s back.
I quickly became interested in genetics. Sheep breeding was all about looks, but I was fascinated by recording performance figures, like how many lambs each ewe would produce. I first began breeding for foot rot resistance 70 years ago. Most farmers would run their flock through a chemical foot bath, but I noticed that foot problems seemed to come down to the structure of the feet, especially the width of the toes. I decided to cull the worst and breed the best, and it solved the problem.
In the 70s, I was the first farmer in New Zealand to apply an experimental embryo transfer technique, researched by the Ruakura Animal Research Station. It involved taking the eggs from the top 10 producing ewes and transplanting them into the rest of the flock. One year, I managed to get nine lambs out of one ewe. That really got me established in the scientific world of breeding.
Then we had to deal with barber’s pole worm. Again, I thought there might be a genetic factor that could be bred for resistance to the blood sucking parasite. In the 1980s I asked Ruakura to set me some breeding protocols. I had to collect dung samples from each of my lambs, and when I started there was an average worm egg count of 1500 per gram. But we noticed there was a fivefold difference between the best and the worst sires.
Progress was slow before the year 2000. If one susceptible ewe bred into the flock, it was a step backwards. However, in 1998, we found an exceptional ram for worm resistance. Of the 400 lambs evaluated, he had 41 sons. When evaluated by computer, he had the top 22, with no sons in the bottom 60 per cent. Five sons were used from this sire, and resulted in significant progress. Last year, I tested 400 ram lambs twice in late January and late February. The first egg count averaged 3722. The second count was only 122. This was an unbelievable drop and illustrated how the immune system will overcome a major challenge. Breeding for worm resistance is all about breeding a stronger and aggressive immune system.
Mainly I stuck with it on principle and to avoid chemicals. After the war, copper sulphate was used to drench lambs and then they added nicotine. One day I was drenching and looked out the window and saw that five lambs were dead. That was because we had given the smaller lambs the same dose and it had killed them. Better and safer drenches soon became available. Farmers would drench their whole flock as a matter of course. A new drench would come out every 10 years because worms would become resistant. Now some farms have total resistance to all drenches. I never dreamed it would go that far.
In the 1973, I was elected to the NZ Romney Council. Out of 20 councillors, I was the only one from north of Whanganui. It was considered that no good sheep farmer would come from the north, especially Auckland. One day I came up with the idea to put out a publication and the council agreed. I didn’t know anything about publishing, but I’ve always been keen on writing. I spent a month on the road selling page adverts for $4000 and we raised $115,000. It ended up being 96 pages, which we sent to every sheep farmer in the country. Years later, a farmer in Banks Peninsula told me he was only able to diagnose pneumonia in his sheep thanks to an article he read. It was a huge success and I got noticed. After 23 years with the council I was nominated for vice president and later president. The idea of a northern farmer being president would have been unthinkable once.
After the amalgamation of Rodney into the Supercity, there were a lot of complaints from dairy farmers. Auckland Council officers would turn up without warning at farms and start taking photos of everything, as if it were a crime scene. It was a confrontational issue. Brian Mason and I organised a public meeting in Wellsford to allow farmers to air their complaints. Out of that meeting, the Landowners and
Contractors Protection Association (LCPA) was formed. Brian and I met with officials from Council and explained the situation. We drafted up a set of protocols from the farmers’ point-of-view, including organising appointments and photos to be taken with permission. Those protocols are still in use today and the LCPA continues to arbitrate with officials on behalf of farmers.
In the 90s, I had a cow that had three sets of triplets in three years – a clear outlier. The day she birthed her second set of calves, she took each of them to a different location to hide them. It was the most remarkable thing I had ever seen. I talked to the scientists at Ruakura and we decided to clone her. They took a tissue sample and produced three clones. There was such an outcry from ignorant people who felt clones should not be eaten, but they were no different to any other animal. Then, in the 2000s researchers from the USA took semen from one of her sons. They began a breeding programme and wrote a scientific paper which had my name on it. I may have been the only Kiwi farmer at the time to have had his name on an international research paper. Today, the progeny of that cow are producing an average of 3.5-4 calves in the US. They are having to give them fertility suppressants. I can’t take the credit for breeding that outlier cow. It was accidental, but the power of observation and noticing traits is the secret to breeding. Where others just see an animal, I see an individual.
Gordon is selling his life’s work at a ‘full dispersal’ sale this month that will see his ewes spread around the country. His daughters now own the family farm and hope to build lakeside chalets for tourists to add to the Levet legacy.