Lamb Production

Australian sheep meat industry is “very exposed” to mulesing

Terry Sim, June 30, 2017

MLA managing director Richard Norton.

AUSTRALIA’S sheep meat industry was “very exposed” on the issue of mulesing, Meat & Livestock Australia managing director Richard Norton told lamb and wool producers in Bendigo this week.

At the 2017 BestWool BestLamb Conference in Bendigo on Wednesday, when asked if there would be an effect from mulesing on the red meat industry, Mr Norton said he would qualify his statement within the context of “MLA being responsible for marketing your product ‘in market’”.

About 400 sheep meat and wool producers attended the 10th annual conference in Bendigo on Wednesday.

“We’ve all seen the pictures of a lamb sitting in a cradle that’s just been freshly mulesed,” Mr Norton said.

“I, through the Sheepmeat Council of Australia, employed an antagonist that would attack the red meat industry and the lamb industry.

“The first slide he put up was a lamb in a cradle that had just been mulesed,” he said.

“The second slide he put up was of five lambs standing in a corner that had just been mulesed.

“I don’t think you have to be a genius to work out how the antagonist against people eating animals, against eating red meat and trying to attack from the vegan point of view…. what those images would do in your markets – not my markets, your markets,” Mr Norton said.

“And then we had the data around how many of those animals were given pain relief when that surgical procedure was done.”

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Challenge for industry is to understand the risk

Mr Norton said he didn’t want to get into an argument about whether it is right or wrong to mules sheep.

“I come at it from the point of view that I’m responsible for marketing your product whether it be domestically or globally.

“The challenge for you as an industry is (to) understand that you are very exposed at this point in time around that issue.”

After the conference, Mr Norton told Sheep Central the practice of mulesing is hard to defend to the global consumer.

“The question is, if global retailers saw the images of mulesed sheep would they stop buying Australian red meat? And the answer is yes.”

Mr Norton reiterated that the initial question was broad and he answered it in the context of MLA being a marketer of sheep meat products.

“One of the great exposures for me marketing red meat in America and across Europe is the antagonists taking on mulesing and showing images of mulesed sheep.

“That would be offensive to people consuming our red meat and our good lamb,” he said.

“To me, it is a sleeper issue.”

Many Australian prime lamb dams are mulesed first cross, composite or Merino ewes, and unmulesed ewes generally sell at a discount in saleyards, due to the risk of flystrike.

“The Australian lamb industry should be concerned by that – it is a concern,” Mr Norton said, and it needed to consider producing lambs from an unmulesed base in the future.

“We all know from the research and the data around what consumers thinks and consumers want to know.

“They want to know that the animal has been treated ethically, so one doesn’t have to be particularly intelligent around people seeing those sort of images and thinking whether or not an animal has been treated ethically in the production process,” Mr Norton said.

“So the issue of mulesing is a sleeper for the red meat industry and one that would have a major impact on our consumers if, like the mulesing debate around wool in 2005, a similar campaign was run around mulesing.”

Is the solution genetics, pain relief or consumer understanding?

Pigeon Ponds prime lamb producer and west Victorian regional chairman for the Southern Australia Meat Research Council, Tim Leeming, said he had not mulesed a sheep in his Paradoo Prime self-replacing maternal composite flock since 1995.

Mr Leeming said urban consumers did not differentiate between the wool and sheep meat industries. He believed Merino wool producers continuing to mules represented as much a threat to the sheep meat industry as lamb producers with mulesed ewes.

“If you were to look at the sheep meat industry as a whole, mulesing and lamb survival out of Merinos, are the biggest threats, without a shadow of a doubt.

“That’s not being discriminatory, because there are still a number of prime lamb mothers that are being mulesed unnecessarily and is also some ordinary lamb survival in the prime lamb industry,” he said.

“If we were to look at where the big threats are, a lot of it points toward the Merino, that’s where the work has got to be done,” he said.

“We know there are some leading Merino breeders in the country who ceased mulesing years ago and others who have put fat and muscle into their sheep and improve lamb survival.

“It can only be done by genetics.”

Mr Leeming said the wool industry’s “knee-jerk” reaction to animal activist action and ultimatums against mulesing had been to try to treat the problem or its cause with “band-aid” solutions.

“Clips, anaesthetic, what else do you want to throw at it?

“We can spend billions of dollars on bull…. and not address the real issue.”

Mr Leeming said he could not see why there would not be a backlash against Australian sheep meat over mulesing in a similar way to how the issue has affected wool marketing.

Harrow wool producer and Sheepmeat Council of Australia board member Michael Craig has not mulesed Merino lambs since 2007, using breech scoring and electronic identification to autodraft and correctively join ewes to develop a flock that did not require mulesing.

“We could not have ceased mulesing if we didn’t have EID.”

But Mr Craig said the genetic solution to mulesing could not be “generalised” across the industry. He said the SCA is discussing anything that could be a risk to the industry.

“We’ve all heard the arguments why the Australian industry needs to do it (mules); we don’t have any alternatives, it actually is about animal welfare and managing risk (flystrike) in certain businesses and environments.”

Mr Craig said the industry should be thinking about how mulesing is perceived by consumers, how it managed the risk and proved it does care for its animals.

“And the real issue is how do we show that we really care for our animals and that puts the debate more around pain relief than mulesing itself.

“Those are the kinds of discussions around the sheepmeat council table that we do have,” he said.

“It’s not just mulesing, we’ve got to think about the whole welfare of the animal; all the things we do and not be ‘knee-jerk’ (in our reactions).

“There are reasons why we have to do things, but we’ve got to mitigate risk about what things say to consumers,” Mr Craig said.

“I personally think that a lot of our discussions in the future should be about pain relief and risk mitigation strategies.”

Mr Craig said he personally appreciated how “fantastic” mulesing was for flystrike prevention, but he could also see the consumer position.

‘They don’t know anything about pain relief’

Leading global wool industry analyst Chris Wilcox told BestWool BestLamb conference delegates he found at the recent International Wool Textile Organisation Congress in the United Kingdom that “mulesing is clearly a negative”.

“And when I talk to mills around the world, even in China, they say they are getting increasing demand for wool from sheep that are non-mulesed.

“They don’t know anything about pain relief, they want non-mulesed; the retailers and the brand they want non-mulesed wool.”

Mr Wilcox said the production of non-mulesed wool had increased to about nine percent of the Australian clip. Mills were turning to South Africa, Argentina and New Zealand for non-mulesed wool supplies, but he said only 6pc of New Zealand’s wool is Merino and Australia produces 70pc of the world’s Merino wool.

“Every time I go to China they are talking about it, not for the Chinese domestic market, but for the export market, and about half the wool that goes to China is re-exported to the United States and European Union.”

JBS Australia supply chain manager Mark Inglis refused to answer questions on the impact of mulesing in overseas markets.

Australia’s Sheep Industry Strategic Plan 2020 has an imperative for “Continuous improvement of sheep health and wellbeing”. The key activity under this imperative is to “Monitor and actively respond to community perceptions and concerns about sheep industry practices across the entire supply chain”. The plan lists MLA, SCA and the Australian Livestock Exporters’ Council as sharing the responsibility for implementing this key activity.

Sheepmeat Council of Australia’s senior executives are in Europe, but Sheep Central is seeking SCA comment on the risk mulesing poses to Australia’s sheep meat industry.


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  1. Paul Favaloro, July 7, 2017

    Can anybody please tell me how mulesing stops body strike?

  2. Eric Chandler, July 6, 2017

    I am a commercial Merino breeder and saw the writing on the wall for the cessation of mulesing back in 2000. I became proactive in using SRS genetics to reduce wrinkle in my ewe flock. I ceased mulseing in 2006 and now run a highly fertile wrinkle-free flock in Western Australia. The sheep are easy-care and don’t need any jetting. They are naturally resistant to flies and fleece rot as the wool dries quickly after rainfall. The wool is very well received by buyers as it has elite qualities. My lambing percentages are well above the national average. SRS breeding delivers highly profitable outcomes in easy care non-mulsed Merinos.

  3. Peter Tatham, July 6, 2017

    My wife and I own a small woollen textile mill on our property just north of Toowoomba. We manufacture high-end hand knitting yarn from our Angora goat herd – (
    Two years ago we visited the countries of Denmark, Sweden and Finland to showcase our yarns to high-end knitwear shops. All countries expressed concern and disappointment about the mulesing issue to us. While we use only non-mulesed Merino fibre in our yarns, we found resistance to the sale of our yarn. All acknowledged that Australia grew the finest Merino fibre in the world. The retail shops in Sweden, while acknowledging we did indeed use non-mulesed Merino in our yarns, refused to purchase them fully knowing the “retail mood” surrounding Australian Merino and the mulesing issue.
    This European – if not the world – attitude surrounding the mulesing debate in Australia has been known about for over a decade. It’s time to resolve this issue now and educate the rest of the world that we have solutions in place. This cannot continue if we are to maintain our status as a world-class fibre growing country.

  4. Shelley Saunders, July 6, 2017

    We breed ultrafine and superfine merino sheep and have no mulesed sheep on our property ( Our non-mulesed status has been achieved through SRS selection and genetics. The result is a plainer bodied easy care superfine Merino with increased fibre growth and fleece weight, higher weaning weights and a robustness that has a natural resistance to disease. Our move toward SRS breeding and selection has resulted in additional benefits beyond our initial aim of breeding a superfine Merino that flourishes without the need to mules.

  5. Jodi Axford, July 6, 2017

    I think we all need to accept that the consumers of our products — meat and wool — do not want mulesing. They don’t care about what arguments you put forward, but most of all they don’t have to use our product. The good news is mulesing doesn’t have to be a big problem for any of us. So don’t waste any more of your time thinking about how you are going to change their minds. Put your energy in to sourcing some rams, that will allow you to no longer need to mules. I am an SRS commercial Merino breeder. We started to select rams that had a plain breech and each year we tipped more and more lambs out of the mulesing cradle that just didn’t need it. Now none of them need it. Also, our sheep are no less productive, but actually more productive for wool, meat and fertility. I urge producers to give this a try. In three generations you will be well on your way. The SRS group of about 40 studs made a decision in the early 2000’s to cease mulesing, so you can imagine, there is a lot of great genetics out there now as well as help and support. It’s a very exciting time to be in the industry.

  6. Trevor Ryan, July 6, 2017

    Well said Dominic Hallam. When will our industry leaders stop sticking their heads in the sand and begin listening to what the consumers of their product want. It is becoming more and more obvious every day that the worldwide users of our products — wool and meat — do not want to be associated with an industry that uses and supports the practice of mulesing.
    The genetic solution has been staring them in the face for nearly two decades yet they continue to ignore and in some cases actively impede the industry acceptance of this solution.
    As a member of the SRS breeding group we and many other seedstock producers have been supplying these mules-free genetics to commercial producers all over the country, many of whom are running operations that sit at the top end of industry production levels for both $/ha and $/dse.
    We personally ceased mulesing 13 years ago and did so without any management issues or productivity decline. Nor are our sheep “smothered in chemicals”. In fact, due to the overall flystrike resistance of our flock, our chemical use is almost non-existent.

  7. Dominic Hallam, July 6, 2017

    If a simple risk assessment was to be applied to the task of mulesing and applied to a risk matrix with the immediate risks, such as effects on the sheep and the long term economic effects, such as sheep and wool sales to the end-user, it would be seen that that the only true and safest way to eliminate mulesing would be through an engineering solution, or call it genetics. Our business ceased mulesing in 2008, thanks to Dr Jim Watts and the use of genetics, using soft, wrinkle-free Merinos from SRS breeders across the country. Wasting millions spent of our levies to AWI on pharmaceutical companies for a poor idea to keep a minority group “quiet”, is not what consumers want. Consumers are far too smart to see through this. They want unmulesed wool and meat. Why is AWI so keen to keep mulesing with using pain relief? Why are they not seeking what is staring them straight in the face and looking for a genetic solution. I wonder…

  8. Ben Hayes, July 4, 2017

    If you want to get into what causes the most pain for lambs at lamb marking, I have found that castration rings are the greatest cause of mortalities after marking than any other operation, but because there is no blood, no-one even comments on this fact. We reverted back to castration with the knife and did not lose a lamb between lamb marking and weaning. We do mules and we do use pain relief. There are operations on our farm where we don’t allow visitors to see and lamb marking is one such operation. If they don’t see it, you find they don’t comment.

  9. Brad Bellinger, July 3, 2017

    The introduction of mulesing was a major breakthrough for the prevention of flystrike; a quick operation that lambs recover from quickly. Despite the campaign of those who do not understand the realities of large-scale animal husbandry, the prices of lamb, mutton and wool have continued to rise. The last thing we need is public servants such as Richard Norton highlighting it as an issue.

  10. Glenn Phillip Nix, June 30, 2017

    I suggest they do a better job of defending mulesing than giving up. Do people prefer their meat or fibre to come from animals smothered in chemicals instead? Have they been asked that question? I’m sure if shown photos before going into a steak house of lambs or calves that were given names the easily led might turn around. And while we have all heard the arguments for mulesing, most of the planet has not. Maybe show slides of fly-struck sheep and introduce people to the smell. Give some a go with a handpiece on a badly struck sheep that is not mulesed — Mr Norton first.

  11. Johnny Gardner, June 30, 2017

    It is a matter of cultural change within our industry. It is a very exciting time in our industry, seeing the progression of wool and meat production. We have a fantastic opportunity to harness this through the use of genetic progress and make mulesing redundant. We should listen to consumer demand as well as respect the animals we manage to ensure a long sustainable future for our products.

  12. Colin Earl, June 30, 2017

    Can we not learn from industry leaders in other fields? They work to solve their problems in-house without taking every opportunity to draw attention to them in public.

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