SHEEP shearing is continuing around Australia, but with sheds implementing social distancing strategies consistent with government and industry advice as the coronavirus COVID-19 crisis continues.
The New Zealand Shearing Contractors Association initially advised on its Facebook page last week that the industry will go into lockdown on 25 March, but NZSCA president Mark Barrowcliffe said shearing is now classed as an essential service “so the teams can go and do essential jobs only.”
He said individual businesses need to register with the NZ Ministry for Primary Industries and show they have systems in place, “and once satisfied MPI will grant a number.”
“These crews will not look the same as a strict set of protocols (see nzshearing.co.nz) need to be followed for 24 hours of each and every day.”
Meanwhile in Australia, shearers and contractors are endeavouring to complete as much work as possible in case similar restrictions are brought in here as part of tighter COVID-19 control measures.
A group of wool and sheep organisations this week released shearing protocols in response to COVID-19 which include strategies such as travelling separately and maintaining 1.5 metre distance between workers on the board and during meals.
This includes wool growers considering using only every second shearing stand and having rooms for each worker on camp-out jobs. Shearers and shed hands have also been advised that with the closure of state borders – South Australia, Western Australia and Queensland – if they go into these states they will need to self-isolate for 14 days.
One Western District wool grower preparing to shear in early April is aiming to leave an empty stand between each shearer and is putting in separate handwashing facilities and providing hand sanitizer.
Wool handlers will be asked to leave the locks on the board so they are near shearers for only a short period.
Contractor implements COVID-19 strategies
Tocumwal-based contractor Jason Wingfield of Baldwin Shearing said shearers and wool handlers are doing what they can to minimise contact, which is putting pressure on the system and its workers.
“It’s a hard industry to be in now, you’ve got a responsibility to get the job done before sheep lamb at this time of the year to avoid ewes getting cast.”
The stands in his next shed at Hay are 2.5 metres apart, and contact between workers would be minimised, he said. His team will be shearing 15,000 Merino ewes joined to lamb a month after shearing.
Mr Wingfield said shearing teams have been doing what work they can before there is possibly a complete shutdown as in New Zealand.
“There are not enough staff around to pull any work forward.
“A few went home when the shutdown was looming to be with family,” he said.
“And now we’ve got borders closed which is going to make it difficult again.”
“Tasmania’s next shearing is going to difficult.
“A couple of my staff go over there and it could 90 percent of the staff in the sheds come from the mainland.”
Mr Wingfield said the cook’s husband in his team would be “the disinfectant man” ensuring good hygiene between staff and on surfaces.
“Once we go there we are just going to stay there and work every day until the job is done and then come home.”
Mr Wingfield said food buying for the 25-member team shed was also complicated by the panic-buying of essential grocery items such as toilet paper, bread, longlife milk, pasta rice, sugar and flour. He and his wife shopping daily for weeks to buy enough feed for the camp-out job.
Industry should prepare for lockdown – SCAA
Shearing Contractors Association of Australia secretary Jason Letchford said SCAA members have been advised they are currently allowed to operate, in lieu of any direction not to. But workers need to implement strict hygiene standards and to comply with the personal distance rule by perhaps using every alternate stand and wool handlers picking up fleeces only when the shearer goes back into the catching pen, he said.
“Let’s not try to be the exception let’s be the rule, as in do the right thing.”
SCAA members have also been advised they should be aware that the closure of the NZ industry could influence future decisions in Australia, unless shearing is classed as an essential service.
Mr Letchford said the shearing and wool industry had to be prepared for a potential lockdown.
“We need to start planning for that as a possible outcome of the next level of restrictions.
“It can’t last for too long, but we may be, in the first instance, asked to stop work for two weeks and we need to prepare ourselves in terms of our customers and our employees of how we would manage things after a lockdown,” he said.
AWU forecasts call for help if shearing is shut down
AWU Victoria branch secretary Ben Davis said the AWU advises its members to observe social distancing guidelines and observe the advice of health authorities.
“Where there is an opportunity to use unused stands further apart, for example, this should be done.
“The AWU reminds members that the award contains provision for an hourly rate for shearers and where necessary altered work patterns are adopted shearers should be paid the hourly rate rather than the per sheep rate,” he said.
Mr Davis said members who are camped out should consider messing separately, taking turns to eat and avoiding close socialising of an evening.
Mr Davis said the AWU believes shearing can continue in the face of the COVID-19 directions on social distancing and travel.
“We believe it can and should be possible.
“However, if the industry is shut down, the AWU calls on the government and employers to ensure that workers and contractors who are affected are fairly compensated and their employment arrangements are retained for after the crisis is over,” he said.
“It’s also vital that mental health support is readily available to shearers who want it.”
WoolProducers Australia president Ed Storey said shearing needed to continue for animal welfare reasons, with ewes coming up to lambing, and to avoid flystrike, and because of its relationship with the sheep meat supply chain.
“Shearing and wool is an integral part of that food supply chain.
“Shearing is often highly correlated with the supply of sheep meat, with sheep being shorn before sale or before going into feedlots,” he said.
“People will have to practise social distancing, maybe it means missing a stand if they are close together, keeping apart and using good hygiene.
“We think it is pretty low risk, but it’s important that the protocols are observed.”
NZ shearing protocols aim to keep workers safe
Mr Barrowcliffe said the aim of the new NZ shearing protocols are to keep employees and farmers safe.
“The decision of whether a job is essential or not is decided by contractor and farmer and is documented for MPI if questioned.
“The general feeling in NZ at the moment is that everyone is playing the self-isolation game and wants to give this a good crack at succeeding, so I think cases of this essential services being abused will be few and far between.”
Click here for detailed COVID-19 shearing protocols.