Obituary for Jock Allison

Prepared by John McEwan (AgResearch)

Dr Arthur John (Jock) Allison died peacefully on May 11 aged 80. Jock to all those who knew him, was a legend in his own lifetime. His career was closely entwined with Invermay Research Centre over nearly 60 years. He emphasised that the task of agricultural research was not just undertaking rigorous science and its publication, but also ensuring the subsequent adoption in industry of the outcomes.

Jock was passionate about the benefits agricultural research could bring to farming. His early research changed the recommended rates of ram to ewe ratio from 1 to 50 to more than 1 to 100. That simple change has had profound impacts on sheep breeding industry and set the scene for many later developments. His training in reproduction research led him to import Booroola sheep to improve New Zealand sheep reproduction rate. Years later the mapping and identification of the causative mutation was instrumental in creating to what is now the AgResearch Animal Genomics Team. Separately, he was the director of the Invermay campus from 1978-86 and during that time he oversaw the redevelopment of the campus. He also encouraged the creation of the deer research group during that period. After he left AgResearch he was involved in several separate importations of sheep breeds with the introduction of the East Friesian in particular having a major impact not only as a sheep milking breed, but also as part of the dual-purpose composites. These typically also include the Texel breed. Composites that include both breeds often lead the sire lists of NZ maternal sheep breeds. As he said to me recently, during that period some 70,000 straws of sheep semen per year were being used for Lap AI. The current number is probably less than 10,000 per year.

He was a founding member of what is now Abacusbio an international genetics improvement company based in Dunedin. He was also engaged in a number of governance roles including as a director of AgResearch from 1992 to 1999.

In more recent years Jock is perhaps best known for his successful campaign against consolidating Invermay animal research at Lincoln and Palmerston North. Such a move, he argued, would lessen farmer accessibility to scientists and make their work geographically less relevant.

I now want to emphasise two initiatives that are rarely mentioned about Jock, but which have had a major impact on both AgResearch and New Zealand sheep and cattle industries. In the latter part of Jock’s term as an AgResearch director he was instrumental in convincing the then meat and wool boards in 1997 that what is now Beef and Lamb New Zealand Genetics nProve should be developed using animal model BLUP. This doubled the rate of genetic change in the sheep industry. He also advocated a central progeny test, but that change resulted from a later separate initiative. Again it had a major impact and increased genetic gain by a further 50%. Using BLNZ figures: lamb production per ewe has increased by 114% since the 1990/91 year. Expressed on a per kg of drymatter basis it is still a gain in excess of 30%. A major part of that change is genetics.

After he retired as an AgResearch director, his single most impactful action was getting the dairy industry and the meat industry and AgResearch into a single room in Auckland in late 2002 and then obtaining agreement from them to equally contribute for NZ contribution to the sequencing of the cattle genome. That commitment was then in turn matched by Australia, and Canada and along with the major investment by USA meant the cattle genome was prioritised for sequencing as the first farmed animal species. Some twenty years later the benefits of that advocacy for New Zealand and the rest of the world are patently obvious to all.  I have an email and attached letters provided to Jock dated 15th November 2002 from Allan Crawford to the late Warren Parker, Tricia Harris and Paul Atkinson that include some delightful snippets:

Just to let you know that we have set the "…Jock…" loose on the trail of Agritech and Vialactia funding for the bovine sequencing project (seeing we had little success).” Also in the attached letter addressed to Jock “Your ability to convince others, of what at least to me is blindingly obvious, is required

For those wanting some additional background on Jock’s early achievements I suggest you read the Sir Arthur Ward Award 2000 oration and for a more recent summary the article by Neal Wallace

His passing is a big loss to New Zealand’s agricultural industry, and our thoughts are with Hilary his wife and their daughters Katherine and Amy and families.