Reflections on the Southdown Sheep breed by George Melano Sr
While on a recent trip to Warrnambool to visit son George to celebrate his milestone birthday, the question of the modern Southdown was an obvious talking point. Having heard a lot about what the modern sheep was like and what he was doing within the showring and being careful not to say 'I remember when' was quickly avoided by an offer to visit Ned Nagorcka of Nedelle Downs Southdowns, a progressive breeder and old school friend of George’s at Hawkesdale.
Southdowns have changed in the last 70 years from a small breed of quick growing lambs with adult rams not very high when photographed and measured against a brick wall. They were woolly headed and known as poor man's fat lambs. They did however produce a consistently good, light weight carcass which was very popular for export to Britain prior to their entry into the common market now known as the European union.
About the time the export market disappeared, as fate would have it, ram import restrictions from NZ were lifted. This helped progressive breeders such as the late Geoff Baker, who was very active within the breed, who had identified the need to improve the size of the Southdown. Also, very active in development of a modern-style Southdown was the late Harry Trigg, with whom George started his own career in the breed.
These modern-style Southdowns were big sheep by any standard but, as happens with extra size and leg extension, they become just another prime lamb breed - good but not real heavy weights. As they were like others, the question was asked ‘where’s the meat’ and, to their credit, Southdown breeders of the time started looking at market requirements. During this time of expansion there was a great, friendly relationship between breeders as they all saw a common goal.
At this point in time there were a lot of Southdown lambs in the Hawkesdale and Timboon area, with thousands targeted for the annual Timboon pre-Christmas lamb sale. All lambs offered were by Southdown rams out of Romney ewes. This was an ideal combination for the commercial lamb producer. It is important to remember that this successful combination was popular for a good reason, they were good.
When we arrived at Nedelle Downs I noted how things had changed. Once a property of fine wool merinos, now it was different. There were thriving meat sheep. George had told me about these good Southdowns that he liked and had advised Ned to start showing which was something that had not been contemplated before. “Other stud breeders need to see how special these are”, was George’s comment that started the Nedelle Downs show experience.
When I saw the young sheep I realised at once just how right he was. The bar had been raised considerably. These were sheep with size, sheep with meat, sheep with balance and style. Having studied meat science at university, I was able to make the connection between ideal theory and reality. These were the real deal. Size gives increased economy of scale, a corner stone for profitability. Sheep with meat in the right place results in meals with better plate appeal. Lambs with more pronounced hindquarter increase the accuracy of buyers' assessment. Sheep with balance increase animal welfare and longevity. Style is that sex appeal that sells, they take your eye. I knew these modern but not extreme sheep with better muscle expression would have the correlated effect of best meat-eating qualities and more favourable taste test results.
I had to ask the question, “how come these are so good and so much improved?”. After much banter about a particularly good mentor, Ned explained how he was also using scientific testing to find a DNA marker to identify traits such as eating quality and fat distribution. This information being available at a younger age means breeding direction can be targeted to achieve the desired outcome. This data has a high degree of predictability and heritability and this information is readily accepted by the younger generation of bean counters and savvy meat producers to achieve greater returns per hectare.
What Southdowns were destined to become has been achieved. Improvement has been generational, with each generation of owners making a significant improvement to hand on to the next. This is the modern way of identifying beneficial traits that will move the breed forward for the benefit of the modern meat producer.
The biggest challenge now is to educate the modern lamb producer to recognise the benefit of modern Southdowns.