AUSTRALIA’S wool industry was still playing catch-up with other countries in non-mulesed wool production, growers were told at a Merino field day at Jerilderie yesterday.
At the Your Future in Merinos field day at ‘Pooginook’, industry speakers also discussed the need to improve National Wool Declaration rates, clip traceability, preparation and wool quality.
Australian Council of Wool Exporters and Processors president Josh Lamb said there would probably always be a market for wool from mulesed sheep, the numbers of wool growers moving to non-mulesed production “were not moving quick enough” to match demand.
Mr Lamb said annual National Wool Declaration figures of around 3 percent for Ceased Mulesed suggested growers were still transitioning flocks to non-mulesed production.
When asked how urgent was it that non-mulesed wool production increase quickly:
“I think it went past urgent about six or seven years ago, from our point of view,” he said.
“The industry for lots of different reasons has lacked a lot of leadership on it for the last 15 years, we started off on the wrong foot and have been playing catch-up.
“We’re probably catching up for the last couple of years, but we are definitely a long way behind New Zealand and South Africa…..” Mr Lamb said.
“We do produce the best wool in the world and we should be well out in front (in non-mulesed wool production) of other countries, but we’re not.”
National Council of Wool Selling Brokers of Australia president Rowan Woods said it would be “nothing short of catastrophic” for growers if stopped mulesing in the pastoral zone of New South Wales.
He said sheep might be seen once a year on properties west of the Darling (River) and losses from flystrike of non-mulesed sheep could mean the loss of any benefit from a wool price premium.
“Those people won’t be swayed, I won’t be trying to sway them either.”
He said growers on ‘inside’ properties were able to observe their flocks more often.
Mr Woods said the industry’s focus needs to shift from non-mulesed wool to wool quality.
Time to revisit NWD compliance rates
Mr Lamb said transparency of the Australian wool clip starts with the NWD, but Australian Wool Innovation program manager – genetics, Geoff Lindon, said about 40pc of Australia’s wool clip is still undeclared on the NWD for its mulesing status “and that has led to growth in the number of Australian wool integrity schemes.
Mr Lindon said about 25pc of Australian growers are not filling out the NWD at all, and 15pc are completing some parts of the NWD, but not the mulesing status sections. He said AWI surveys indicate about 30pc of Merino sheep in Australia are non-mulesed, but rates are different in each state.
“So it (mulesing) is still in the states where flystrike risk is the highest.”
Mr Woods said it was time to re-visit the industry’s efforts to get all growers declaring their clips on the NWD. Reasons why some growers don’t complete the NWD included that it wasn’t mandatory, some brokers did not require it to be completed, he said.
“Our company for example, we have 100pc declaration (rate among clients) – we insist that our growers declare.”
He said the latest AWTA data indicated that about 73pc of bales tested were declared on the NWD.
“But that’s only risen 1pc in the last year, so as the president of the NCWSBA, I represent companies that handle 80pc of the wool sold at auction.”
He said not all wool brokers are members of the council, but he would strongly encourage NCWSBA members to encourage their growers to complete the NWD voluntarily “because it is in our best interests.”
“It could be mandated, I for one wouldn’t complain and I don’t think the exporters would.
“That’s the first document required for traceability.”
Mr Lamb said he supported Mr Woods on the NWD. He said the rate of NWD compliance “comes down to the education of the wool grower” and brokers achieve declaration completion rates of from 30-40pc up to about 90pc.
“We can’t put enough emphasis on how important that document is to the wool industry; everything bounces off that document.”
AWEX wool classer registrar Fiona Raleigh said AWEX was ramping up its support in the traceability space and acknowledged Mr Lamb’s comments on wool quality.
“I think I would like to say wool quality/preparation because we grow the best wool but that can then get blown away in the harvesting process.”
She said growers can declare mobs on the NWD before shearing and then present that information to the classer.
Pastoral non-mulesed wool grower
Non-mulesed NSW wool grower Peter McCrabb runs sheep north-west of Hay and at Tibooburra and said it was “quite ridiculous” that about 40pc of Australian wool growers were not completing the NWD’s mulesing status sections.
“That’s our international integrity for a country that produces the best wool in the world and arguably the most wool in the world.”
He said producers can’t transport or sell livestock without a National Vendor Declaration, or sell sheep on AuctionsPlus without a national sheep health statement.
“Those things are just mandatory.”
He suiggested that with with the brokers association, AWEX and AWI, working together NWD compliance can be increased.
Support for an Australian wool integrity scheme
Mr Lamb said there are a variety of wool integrity schemes, including the Australian Wool Exchange’s SustainaWOOL. Responsible Wool Standard is the leading scheme, he said, although some poorly prepared RWS-certified clips that were cotty, had colour or not even classed properly have been attracting the same premium as a well-prepared RWS clip of good quality.
“That for us as exporters and processors is a massive issue.”
“So what Australia really needs to do in the long-term – whether it is SustainaWOOL or another scheme – is we do need our own industry program.”
After the forum, Mr Lamb said the concept of setting up an Australian wool quality assurance scheme is not necessarily aimed at increasing non-mulesed wool production.
“The issue we’ve got with RWS at the moment is that no part of RWS that allows for proper clip preparation, particular when you consider we’ve got the best wool clip preparation n standards of any wool-producing country in the world.
“It’s more about Australia being able to say ‘this is what we are producing, it is mulesed, non-mules, we’re doing this and that, we’re having our own scheme that grower can access a bit easier and then the RWS’s of the world can say ‘your standard fits what we want to do and we’re happy to segue into that – which is exactly what happens in New Zealand with ZQ,” he said.
“Why can’t we put forward to the world what we are doing, rather than being told at the other end?”
But Mr Lamb said setting up an Australian QA scheme would not solve the perception of Australia as a mulesing country “in one hit”, although he believed this perception has been slowly turned around in recent years. Mandating pain relief and a change of attitude in the industry would help, he said.
“It’s not about forcing everyone to go non-mulesed, it’s just about laying out where it’s at and informing wool growers.
Mr Woods said told the Jerilderie field day’s forum there was work involved for growers to comply with RWS, including stopping mulesing, surviving an audit and management changes.
Mr Lamb said the Australian industry needs to learn what has made the RWS system so successful.
“There is a lot of non-mulesed wool out there at the moment that brings no premium at all, but the majority of RWS wool does.”
Mr Lamb said wool declared as non-mulesed was not always sold to a non-mulesed order, but there was a recent incident where wool from mulesed sheep has been represented as non-mulesed.
“They’re things that we need to stamp out and we’ve had discussions with AWEX about how we do that.”
Non-mulesed benefits will go to next generation
Mr Lamb also said growers should not go into non-mulesed wool production thinking they were going to make a 20pc premium on wool prices “for the rest of your life, you won’t, you will have to find better reasons to go down that path.”
This could be making efficiencies on farm, being a better global citizen “or maybe it’s just looking after your kids, who will be the next generation of wool growers.”
“I think what we are talking about today and what we do over the next 10 or 15 years, I don’t think people in this room will see the full benefit of it, the next generation will.
“I think we’ve really got to be looking further ahead and don’t make these decisions based on making money,” he said.
“That (price premium) is there at the moment, but if they next generation of Chinese consumers – which AWI could probably talk about later – the next generation of consumers gets a conscience about where their product has come from or otherwise, that will be a gamechanger in this space and the way the Australian industry is at the moment it won’t be a good gamechanger for us.”
About 360 people registered to for the field day in person or online and 120 attended. Pooginook Merino Stud manager John Sutherland said participants were able to discuss many aspects of the Merino industry that are topical at the moment.
“We got great exposure across all states of Australia — we had people from Tasmania, South Australia, Western Australia, Victoria, New South Wales, Victoria and Queensland.”