Page 1: Biography
Ranstead, John Morris
Farmer, animal breeder, agricultural scientist
This biography, written by A. L. Rae, was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography, vol 4, 1998.
John Morris Ranstead was born at East Ham, Essex, England, on 1 July 1884, the first child of William Ranstead, a bookkeeper, and his wife, Margaret Lyon Loch. His father, a Fabian socialist, brought his family to New Zealand in 1900 along with about 200 other people from England. They intended to form a co-operative farming settlement, but this enterprise failed and William moved to Waikato with his family. In addition to other land purchases he bought the Tainui farm at Matangi, where he formed the Tainui Land Settlement Association with his wife and four sons, including John.
In the meantime, John (generally known as Jack) had attended Canterbury Agricultural College and was awarded a diploma in agriculture; he was the top student of his class. In about 1906 he started farming at Matangi. He married Minnie Furze in Hamilton on 31 July 1912. They had no children but adopted a son.
Early in his farming career John Ranstead founded a herd of pedigree milking shorthorn cattle, which by the 1920s had become the outstanding herd of the breed in New Zealand. In 1923 he was elected president of the New Zealand Milking Shorthorn Association (NZMSA), in recognition of his success as a breeder, and in 1932 was awarded the Bledisloe Medal, a national award for his contribution to farming.
During this period John had become interested in the developing science of genetics and its application to livestock improvement. He built up a library of books on genetics which was later described as ‘easily the best and most representative of its kind in private hands’. His experience and his reading convinced him that the early system of choosing young herd sires on the basis of the milk production of their dams was inadequate as a means of genetic improvement. He advocated the recording of all cows in the herd under normal pasture feeding, and then using these records for assessing bulls on the performance of their progeny. He was always ready to assist and encourage those developing the important components of a national herd improvement programme: herd recording, assessing the breeding value of bulls and cows, and the best use of artificial insemination. He made his home available for evening meetings, which were attended by key people in the industry such as William Riddet, C. P. McMeekan, M. M. Cooper, W. M. Hamilton, A. H. Ward, Ernest Marsden, F. W. Dry and H. E. Annett.
Ranstead's scientific and farming knowledge resulted in his appointment to the Council of Scientific and Industrial Research in January 1937. He gave strong support for developments in agricultural research, especially in sheep and cattle breeding. He backed Dry’s research on the inheritance of hairiness in Romney sheep (which ultimately resulted in the carpet wool breed, the Drysdale). Ranstead's most important genetic study was the inheritance of a lethal trait in milking shorthorn cattle, named parrot-beak: an abnormally shortened lower jaw in which the molar teeth are impacted. The calves die at birth. His investigation from records of his own and other herds was a masterly demonstration of his ability.
On Ranstead's initiative the New Zealand Society of Animal Production (NZSAP) was formed and the inaugural meeting was held in Wellington in 1941. In his address as first president he examined the ethical problem facing a breeder when he knows that his stock may carry a harmful genetic effect, and concluded that honesty was essential. He was a firm advocate of the need to bring together breeder, scientist and adviser in the membership of the society. He also helped form the New Zealand Genetical Society (NZGS) and served a term as president.
Ranstead was a tremendous worker, both physically and mentally. He designed and built his own house, barns and milking sheds, worked his own farm almost singlehandedly and maintained a large garden and extensive orchards. He was good-humoured, quick-witted, observant and provocative in a gentle, kindly manner. He influenced many agricultural developments in New Zealand. He was elected to honorary life membership of the Royal Agricultural Society of New Zealand, the NZMSA, the NZGS and the NZSAP – the agricultural and scientific societies that spanned the range of interest of this very gifted man. In 1960 he was made an OBE for services to agriculture. John Ranstead died on 7 September 1972 in Hamilton; he had been predeceased by his wife, Minnie, in 1947.