Co-leader of breeding programme keen to make a positive contribution to farming
Dr Suzanne Rowe, co-leader of the NZAGRC-PGgRc programme to breed low methane ruminants, has always been passionate about farming. Originally from Devon, in the UK, she grew up in the city and left home at 16 to work on a horse breeding stud. Suzanne then moved on to milking cows, which she enjoyed for many years. She found herself milking for a progressive farmer, Herbert Mitchell, who, with his son, was breeding dairy cows for production with a huge emphasis on recording. Tregear farm had been in the family for more than 100 years and the 150 cows were averaging about 10,000 litres of milk. “In terms of production index, at one point it was second only to Scotland’s Rural College research farm, which is an outstanding achievement for a small family farm”, Suzanne remembers.
Tregear was a great place to learn and it was here that Suzanne became interested in making a difference to the agricultural sector. In between milkings, she studied for her A-levels and then attended agricultural college, continuing to milk at weekends and at any other occasional opportunity that she could. From there, she moved to Edinburgh to study quantitative genetics and genomics at the University of Edinburgh. “With my fascination with breeding, it really was the best place in the world that I could have studied”, she reflects. In the second year of her degree, Suzanne was required to spend a year working on a farm. Given she had spent so much time milking cows in the UK, she did not think it made sense to stay there. There was a job advertised on an African farm and, despite a warning from the careers advisor at the University who said it was too dangerous, she decided to take it. She and her husband Tim worked as a team on the remote property in Kalomo, southern Zambia, with Suzanne running the dairy and her husband running the workshop. She hand-milked cows, made butter and cheese, and they grew cash crops such as maize and tobacco. There was a mix of Zebu and Friesian cattle on the property. “The Friesians were great for milk but their tick resistance was extremely low. A massive amount of work went into just keeping them alive”, Suzanne says. “It was a fantastic experience which taught me a lot about agriculture because it was so basic compared with what I’d learnt at home”.
Suzanne completed her masters degree, followed by a PhD in quantitative genetics, and then stayed for some post-doctoral work. Always a firm believer that, in science, you should not stay in one group for an entire career, Suzanne decided that the next move that she made would be a big one. With that in mind, the Rowe family moved to Otago two years ago. One of the biggest attractions was the strong team at AgResearch’s Invermay campus, with the likes of Dr John McEwan, who is world-renowned in genomics, and Dr Ken Dodds. Suzanne was also attracted to New Zealand by the value and importance of agriculture to our economy.
In addition to working on the NZAGRC-PGgRc breeding programme, Suzanne has also found time to work on the development of genomic tools for the deer industry and genetic mapping of genes associated with disease and production traits in sheep. She has also been looking at gene by environment interactions in the New Zealand sheep flock and is interested in the development of a dairy sheep industry in New Zealand. “I’m never bored. There’s plenty to do here,” Suzanne told us. “I’m really enjoying working at Invermay. It’s pretty unique to get this level of expertise in all these different areas in one place. I feel that I’m putting my skills to great use here and I’m positive about making a real contribution to the future of NZ agriculture”.
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