Are heavy sheep breaking the backs of Australia’s shearers?

Terry Sim, January 25, 2017
A sheep being shorn in an early upright shearing platform.

A sheep being shorn in an early upright shearing platform.

HEAVY sheep are forcing some sheep producers to seek new shearing solutions as shearers either refuse to shear ewe flocks or demand owners implement longer curfew times off feed and water.

Shearers and contractors are turning down jobs where the sheep have become too big and heavy — mostly in crossbred and composite flocks — or the owner has presented sheep for shearing that are full or inadequately curfewed.

The problem has prompted at least one Victorian producer to stop his normal shearing to investigate upright shearing technology after his shearers demanded his composite ewes with saleable lambs be kept off feed and water for up to 48 hours before shearing.

With a greater industry-wide focus on feeding for condition score targets to maximise reproduction and genetic selection for liveweight, muscling and growth traits, many mature crossbred and composite ewe flocks can have average liveweights of more than 80 kg and sometimes over 100kg. Shearers are often also asked to drag out and crutch pregnant ewes weighing more than 120kg. Flock owners commonly empty sheep out for 12-24 hours before shearing. About 17 percent of a full sheep’s bodyweight can be gut fill.

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VFF Wool Committee primed to make AWI proposal

Sheep producers generally sedate heavy rams prior to shearing, but the latest concerns are around heavy crossbred or composite ewes, many at maximum liveweights after a good season across Australia.

The issue has been raised with the Victorian Farmers Federation and the Shearing Contractors Association of Australia, raising the prospect of renewed research interest in finding solutions.

VFF Livestock Group president Leonard Vallance said the newly formed VFF Wool Committee was expected to discuss the issue of shearing heavy sheep, including a re-examination of shearing methods and wool harvesting. He said pigs were now being laser-scanned and processed robotically.

“Why can’t we scan a sheep and shear it with a robot?

“I just take the view that we’ve got a sheep with wool on it somewhere standing in the paddock, so how do we get it to that conveyor belt in the scouring plant?”

Mr Vallance said he would ask the wool committee to prepare a proposal for Australian Wool Innovation to conduct research in this area.

“It’s all just stopped; there needs to be substantial investment in it.”

VFF Wool Committee chairman and Merino breeder Steve Harrison said ewe weights were increasing and would be discussed at its first meeting.

“Everything is getting bigger and bigger.

“I’m looking at some (Merino) ewes here that are going to cut 10 kg of wool and they are 80kg lwt.”

Committee member Peter Small said something needed to be done about shearing heavy sheep.

“Farmers have got to understand you can’t expect the human body to do the impossible.

“If you want to breed ridiculously big sheep, you bear the consequences of it,” he said.

Mr Small believed some producers had lost sight of the efficiency issues with running big sheep.

“If you’ve got the animal so big that you can’t actually handle it, why not have two smaller animals?”

The straw breaking the shearer’s back?

Kangaroo Island contractor Paul McMahon said shearing heavy ewes would become a big issue due to the size they were being bred and difficulty getting farmers to empty them out adequately.

“It’s the straw that is going to break the camel’s back, eh?

“There’s a weight you can drag out and once you get past that it is just too much.”

Mr McMahon has been shearing for 30 years and contracting for 22 years, but sheep had started to get too heavy in the past 4-5 years. Years ago 70-75kg liveweight ewes were the norm, but now shearers were being asked to shear crossbred ewes that averaged 95kg and sometimes up to 110kg, he said.

“Physically it is like shearing rams all day – someone is going to seriously get injured one day or worse and I just hope it is not on my watch.”

Mr McMahon recognised that completely emptying sheep might present an animal welfare issue, and believed producers would have to breed more “user-friendly size” sheep or they wouldn’t be able to get the shearers to do the job.

“You are not going to get the shearers to do the job.”

Mr McMahon and his team recently walked out of a shed for the first time when the shearers were presented with full terminal lambs. He has also told another farmer to find another contractor to shear his 95-100kg composite ewes. Heavy ewes were more common among first cross and composite flocks, he said.

“They’re actually killing us and we can’t shear them – it’s dangerous.

“Where does the duty of care come in?”

Contractors to raise issue with AWU and NFF

Shearing Contractors of Australia secretary Jason Letchford said shearers were recognising that the size and weight of some sheep, especially rams, was reaching a “breaking point” and becoming an occupational health and safety issue with traditional shearing.

Mr Letchford said he has asked for sheep weight to be listed for discussion with the Australian Workers Union and the National Farmers Federation.

“There is a breaking point and we are very close to that in terms of size of sheep, unless we use mechanical (upright platform) shearing.”

Mr Letchford said there are no prescribed OH&S guidelines for the sedation of sheep, or in relation to their weight or size.

“WorkCover certainly won’t entertain anything along those lines; it would be completely out of their charter to go there.

“The over-arching law they keep pushing back to us is that contractor and the farmer have a duty of care to send our workers home safe and well every night,” he said.

“Anything that is a breach of that requirement is a breach of the health and safety obligation,” he said.

AWI spent more than $6 million on its mobile wool harvesting Shear Express project, before ceasing funding in 2003 after an independent evaluation and field trials confirmed the prototype unit had not met key design expectations and targets. More than 80 potential harvesting technologies were assessed by AWI, identifying promising areas for development including handpiece technology, parallel, modular, upright shearing platforms and alternative shearing technologies.

Peak Hill Industries owner, Bill Byrne, has sold about 50 ShearEzy platforms across Australia and overseas from his Peak Hill base in central west New South Wales and NSW wool grower Grant Burbidge last year shore 22,000 sheep using upright shearing platforms.


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  1. Pam McCagh, July 17, 2019

    I’m fed up about hearing about live export and the cruelty to the animals. Don’t get me wrong, I think something should have been done a long time ago.
    But my question is, what about the shearers? My husband is a shearer. He starts work at 7am and finishes at 5pm. He has to shear as many sheep as he can for $3.19 per sheep. He does not get holiday pay or sickness benefits if it doesn’t work.
    It’s very difficult for me to see my husband working so hard. So please have a bit of pity for the shearers. It’s not a good wage when you consider everything he has to buy. One handpiece is about $800. Then you need at least 75 cutters and two boxes of combs. And everything else that goes along with the job. I think shearing is still in the dark ages.

  2. John Lekrit, January 30, 2017

    Trish calls everyone who pre-lamb shears (the majority in this part of the country) “a complete idiot”, Tom thinks that curfews for shearing should exceed what is permissible for transporting the same livestock and someone else claims it is better to have two smaller sheep than one — great, double the shearing cost — I can see there would be lots of enthusiasm for that! As usual, it’s a complex problem and it’s unlikely there are simple or easy solutions. Maybe the archaic pastoral award needs some much needed modernisation. How equitable is it that it costs the same to shear a 40kg sheep as it does an 80kg+ monster? Talking of archaic, that describes the entire wool harvesting process, virtually unchanged in a hundred years, seriously lacking in mechanisation and automation.

  3. Michelle, January 27, 2017

    Here we go — size in sheep does matter. I fully understand the dilemma facing shearers. Sheep breeders also shear their animals, although not all of them. Just about every sheep breeder will shear a few a year and they know their animals are getting bigger. The bottom line for them is the fact that bigger sheep breed lambs that meet premium processing weights more consistently than smaller-framed animals. For a large proportion of farmers who simply look to turn their lambs off as quickly as possible before grass seeds, this feature is essential to making market specifications and not just glutting the market with store lambs. Having said all that, we need to look at how to better manage the ewe unit to reduce her mature size while maintaining excellent early weaning weights and yearling weights. There are many who are looking at mating ewe lambs at 50-60kg live weight. This does not affect the genetic potential of this animal to produce a quick growing early maturing lamb, but it will provide nutrient demand on the ewe and subsequently she has a much higher chance of not growing to her full potential – resulting in potentially happier shearers. This also provides the farmer with a new mob of sheep for lambing next year, but lambing down ewes this early will require excellent management skills. Add into this equation further work on the various research projects of the 1990s, the most promising, that has actually progressed to commercial use is the shearing trailer. Ultimately the greatest impact large sheep have on the shearer is on the catch and drag element of shearing. Shearing and clutching trailers present the animal next to the shearing plant, resulting in simply tipping and positioning prior to shearing or crutching. This layout has increased crutching rates by as much as 50 percent.

    Perhaps what AWI could fund is a project to look at farmer modifications to their shearing sheds to reduce the drag and incorporate some of the crutching trailer technology into their sheds. As for the AWI Shear Express project being shelved because it failed to meet expectations; this needs to be considered with some background. The project had been given an extension and funding beyond the initial stages because the project management experienced issues with skills and consistent staffing. Throw into the equation a massive change in the board and a shift in focus to other livestock issues such as flies and the Shear Express was not doing as badly as initially assessed. There are aspects of a number of projects that could benefit the industry with further investigation. Perhaps AWI should look at stepping away from the normal funding cycle and look at better ways to fund and review projects to ensure they reach their full potential. Full names required in future for reader comments please Michelle, as per our long-standing comments policy: Editor.

  4. tom casey, January 27, 2017

    These heavier sheep need two nights off feed. The lambs could have gone back to the paddock. If they are too full, knock off and come back tomorrow. I’d say putting full sheep over cradles will lead to a few casualties as you do get over the board with full sheep. It’s hard work, probably the cradles should be used on tough and heavy sheep, especially for younger inexperienced or recovering shearers. The bigger the sheep the longer the curfew needs to be.

  5. Shift shearing to weaning time, ewes are lighter from rearing a lamb. Use Clik or KFM prior to lambing, very simple. I have used this method for many years. Full names required in future for reader comments please Fred, as per our long-standing comments policy: Editor.

  6. Colin Earl, January 26, 2017

    The large size is a direct result of maternal selection indexes that result in larger, less efficient and less profitable sheep. The smarter producers are already shifting to smaller prolific genotypes.

  7. Ricky wood, January 26, 2017

    Yes I am a shearer and yes my back is broken, but because the industry’s excessive drive to get the job done, I have had to work in pain for 4.5 years with no compensation. The likelihood that I won’t be able to walk by the age of 40 is very real. I’m now 27, I have a baby on the way, so I have no choice but to work until my spine is severed.

  8. I’ve been shearing for 20-plus years and don’t need to manhandle an animal that is 1.5 times your weight. This is what breaks the learners coming though. I don’t blame them for looking for a better job. Full names required in future for reader comments please John, as per our long-standing comments policy: Editor.

  9. A farmer who expects shearers to shear pregnant ewes is a complete idiot. No wonder shearers are complaining. Rams of any size may have horns which is an added danger to handle to get the wool off.

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