Waikato Times

Passionate about food, footy, family and farming

- The annual Mid Northern Romney Ram Fair at Claudeland­s Events Centre in 2012.

John Reeves went with his boots on. The widely respected Romney and Shorthorn breeder was working with Helen, his wife of 54 years, in the cattle yards on the family Waimai stud a couple of weeks back when he tripped and fell over, cutting his leg.

With help, the Te Akau hill country farmer was able to walk to his bike, get on and start to drive off, but then collapsed.

Son Alastair told those at John’s farewell at the Te Akau-Waingaro Community Complex (which John had been a driving force behind) that his father went out on his own terms on the medium-to-steep hill farm his family had run since 1932.

John was a pioneer in breeding sheep with tolerance to facial eczema, which had been a Waikato and national disaster since the 1930s.

His perseveran­ce in continuing to develop ever-greater tolerance to eczema among his own sheep saved his many clients hundreds of thousands of dollars and a great deal of angst over many decades.

This also helped shape the way other ram breeders now manage their breeding programmes.

In more recent times, John sold many rams to other breeders as they began to recognise the importance of breeding tolerant sheep.

Nowadays, there exists a very good chance that any farmers who purchase an eczema-tolerant Romney ram from any breeder has Reeves genetics in their flock.

Former Ruakura scientist Dr Clive Dalton said that, in the late 1930s, facial eczema was devastatin­g sheep flocks in the drier parts of the North Island, especially in the hill country between Port Waikato and Raglan, where farmers were each regularly losing up to a thousand sheep every autumn.

Things got so bad that in 1938, Whatawhata farmer Togo Johnstone, on behalf of Waikato Federated Farmers, pressured the Government to direct Dr CP McMeekan from Lincoln College to set up the Ruakura Animal Research Station to find the cause of facial eczema, how to prevent it and cure it.

In 1958, the fungus responsibl­e for the disease was identified.

Soon after, larger-than-life personalit­y John was in the thick of the fight, a pioneer for breeding sheep that had tolerance to facial eczema.

John, with some of his neighbours, had noticed that not all sheep got the disease.

Clive said the farmers put pressure on Ruakura scientists to study the genetics of such animals.

‘‘The result was a massive breakthrou­gh where scientists came up with a protocol where the fungus was grown in the lab, the toxin extracted, and young rams were dosed with small amounts to measure their resistance.

‘‘Rams with high resistance were then used as future sires.’’

John was in the front row pushing hard to get this work used widely on his and other farms in areas prone to the disease, and after 50 years of hard dedicated work, a group of breeders formed a group called FEGold to market rams with guaranteed tolerance.

After decades of careful breeding, the proof of the pudding was in the eating at

In what is believed to be the highest price ever achieved for a ram at the time, the Reeveses sold one of their top facialecze­ma-tolerant animals for $9000.

After the sale, PGG Wrightson NZ Livestock genetics manager Bruce Orr told rural reporter Ali Tocker he had never seen such a high price for one animal at the sale, then in its 28th year.

Orr said the key reason for the family’s stock sale success was a facial eczema testing programme they had been running for 27 years.

Clive said John had a second target – internal parasites that cost the sheep industry massive amounts of lost income in poor performanc­e and dagging and crutching.

‘‘He was one of a group of farmers selecting for low faecal egg count in their flocks.

The Reeveses’ flock has made spectacula­r progress and their rams are in great demand by farmers wanting to cut down costs, and not end up with worms that became resistant to chemical drenches, which is an ever-increasing risk.’’

Friend and fellow farmer Keith Abbott worked with John on the facial eczema testing programme for about 35 years, exchanging tested rams yearly.

Keith said he and John were often told they were ‘‘going up the wrong tree’’ with their breeding experiment­s – ‘‘but we carried on and were successful’’.

‘‘We had the odd disagreeme­nt, but we always worked around it, we always respected one another’s opinion.’’

Alastair said John, who played in the front row for Waikato, had four major

Son Alastair

loves in his life: food, footy, family and farming.

‘‘Dad loved farming and was very passionate about it and especially about genetics and all its challenges.

‘‘He had absolute confidence in himself, and self-belief that what he was doing was right and one day it would benefit the wider farming community.

‘‘At times this self-confidence could be misconstru­ed as being obstinate. I can remember a time we were having dinner together and we were arguing which way north was. I said, ‘I can solve this,’ and went and got a compass. The compass confirmed that I was right, and Dad replied, ‘The compass must be wrong.’

‘‘This self-belief was imperative as he went down a genetic pathway focusing on eczema tolerance, while most of his contempora­ries went down another pathway, and thought that John was a bloody idiot. Thirty years later, John has proved the doubters, that he was right, and the rest were wrong, and where Waimai Romney is today is a credit to his perseveran­ce.’’

John was on the New Zealand Romney Council, a member of the Mid Northern Romney group, and a life member of the NZ Shorthorn Associatio­n.

Outside of work and family, John’s greatest passion was sport, any sport, but he especially loved rugby, cricket and tennis.

Daughter Fiona said for his children, many of their earliest memories were watching John on the rugby field. ‘‘We spent many hours driving around the Waikato going to rugby games or helping with his training.’’

Later in life, John returned the compliment and was a regular on the sideline at his grandchild­ren’s games.

John loved his community and was a large part of it, hosting the bush sports and supporting the local rugby team, even when his own boots had been hung up for the last time.

‘‘In fact, a few people have mentioned that there will be a few happy referees now that JL has gone to the other side. He could never say things quietly!’’

John was the loved husband of Helen for 54 years; beloved father and father-inlaw of Barbara, Fiona and David, James and Amy, Alastair and Ann; loved grandfathe­r of Rebecca, Harriet, Charlotte, Sophie, George, Angus, Conor, Ella, and Madeleine.

Charles Riddle

A Life Story tells of a New Zealander who helped to shape the Waikato community. If you know of someone whose life story should be told, please email Charles.riddle@wintec.ac.nz

 ?? REEVES FAMILY ?? John (JL) Reeves was famed for breeding eczema-resistance into his Romney sheep on his Te Akau hill country farm.
REEVES FAMILY John (JL) Reeves was famed for breeding eczema-resistance into his Romney sheep on his Te Akau hill country farm.

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