Non-mulesed grower challenges AWEX on sheep freeze branding

Terry Sim, November 11, 2020

Non-mulesed wool grower Dirk Stevens

WOOL grower Dirk Stevens has challenged the Australian Wool Exchange stance on non-mulesed wool declarations by branding his latest Merino clip with a ‘non mulesed non freeze branded’ stencil.

The Fox & Lillie client has branded 165 bales with the stencil, highlighting the anomaly on the current AWEX National Wool Declaration that allows wool from sheep that have been freeze branded to be defined as ‘non-mulesed’.

“When the NWD was created, it was either mulesed or non-mulesed, and then along comes the used car salesmen and made something else up and they reckon they can put it in our box,” Mr Stevens said.

“Strictly speaking they can, because it is not mulesed, according to the (Australian) definition for mulesing, but it is something else, and it’s not in the true spirit of what is ‘non-mulesed.

“So they can piss off, they can can either have their own box, or better still AWEX has to change it to ‘unmodified breech’ or ‘modified breech’, that’s the way I see it.”

Mr Stevens said he found it inconsistent that AWEX did not change the NWD in the latest review to clearly differentiate wool from sheep that had been freeze branded from fleece from sheep that had not been mulesed by shears or freeze branded, yet AWEX’s SustainaWOOL program recently required its growers to declare if their sheep had been freeze branded.

“It’s rather inconsistent, isn’t it?”

Mr Stevens believed the AWEX board wanted to favour supporters of freeze branding in its decision on the NWD and there was also a big faction of sheep breeders who fiercely believe they cannot eliminate mulesing through breeding.

Mr Stevens’ non-mulesed non-freeze branded wool bales loaded for trucking to auction.

Mr Stevens said the AWEX board has sacrificed the credibility of the NWD on the non-mulesed declaration issue.

“For the first time in living history ….I’ve been selling wool the whole time AWEX has been around, because I started in 1983 and I have never seen their word compromised, but I have now.

“Imagine if you were on the other side of the globe and you were told some wool is non-mulesed, but hang on, it’s freeze branded – what’s freeze branding?” he said.

“We can’t bag all the Indians and the Chinese if we are doing the same thing, we’ve got to be straight out blunt Australians.

“I reckon it is horribly un-Australian what they’ve done, as far as sneaking that in.”

He believes the AWEX board should put separate boxes on the NWD for ‘natural breech’ or ‘unnatural breech’, or ‘breech-modified’ and ‘not breech modified’.

“All I’m worried about is our box, because we are getting a premium and we don’t that blown by these people coming along and then our non-mulesed status has no credibility, because it might be non-mulesed and it might be freeze branded .. it’s pretty simple isn’t it?”

No AWEX leadership on ‘truth in labelling’ on the NWD

Fox & Lillie managing director Jonathan Lillie said due to the lack of leadership from AWEX on “truth in labelling on the NWD” — allowing breech freeze branding to be declared as non-mulesed — Mr Stevens has had to take the responsibility into his own hands by clearly labelling his bales.

“AWEX’s position to allow cryogenic breech freezing to be declared as non-mulesed has not only been exposed by other industry accreditation platforms which some buyers rely on to audit and authenticate the wool they purchase, but also their very own integrity standard, SustainaWOOL who now require their wool-growing participants to declare any form of breech modification they apply.

“AWEX has completely undermined its position as a trusted independent and transparent service provider for the Australian wool industry by not following truth in labelling and allowing the market to make up its own mind about whether any new procedure or process adheres to their company’s policy direction,” he said.

Mr Lillie said SustainaWOOL has been actively promoting its decision to change its requirements for participants to declare which form of breech modification they apply citing that after extensive consultation with supply chain partners it was clear that they wished to know what breech modification process had been applied and therefore SustainaWOOL believed it was the appropriate thing to do.

Fox & Lillie managing directors James and Jonathan Lillie.

Despite three rounds of consultation in the recent NWD version 8 review, Mr Lillie said the AWEX board has ignored the very same feedback by allowing growers to declare freeze branded wool to be declared as non-mulesed, “because it is unable to make an informed decision until it received the results of freeze branding pain trials.”

“Fox & Lillie has been very vocal that AWEX has lost its opportunity to promote complete transparency in the Australian wool industry and should correct its flawed decision on the NWD.

“Given AWEX has clearly defined mulesing as “The removal of skin from the breech and/or tail of a sheep using mulesing shears”, then logically any new intrusive husbandry process such as breech freeze branding should also be clearly defined and given its own NWD definition,” Mr Lillie said.

“AWEX needs to advance in step with our wool consumers and understand that truth in labelling is paramount to building trust in the wool we are selling.”

Mr Stevens ceased mulesing in 2004 and his operation spans New South Wales and Victoria, with 2400 hectares at Forbes and 480 hectares at Coolamon in New South Wales, and 2200 hectares at Seymour in Victoria. He has just sold the 32,000 hectare Broughton Vale Station near Broken Hill.

Mr Stevens said he had 26,000 sheep in September 2017, but as the drought hit and spread he destocked the Broken Hill station, buying and stocking the Seymour property, and also sent sheep to Forbes, and sold 6000 head.

“Then the drought followed me to Forbes, then it followed me to Seymour and I was in dire straits … my Kidman principle didn’t work.

“It worked for the two years of drought, but three years was too much.”

When he was down to 12,000 ewes, he brought in classer Bill Walker to cut his numbers in half and just got 6000 ewes through.

“So at least I ended up with the good ones … that was the best thing about it.”

The flock started from a Leahcim base and has had infusions of Ridgway Advance, Nantoura and Pimbena blood. Mr Stevens said he started with a mixed bag ‘wrinkle-wise’, but with selection and management he said he has been able to limit fly treatments to Clik at lamb marking and little else, as long as he is on time with crutching in March and shearing in September.

AWEX advocates truth in labelling, but no change to NWD before next review

AWEX CEO Mark Grave

AWEX chief executive officer Mark Grave  said AWEX is acutely aware of the broad level of interest, differing views and support for the National Wool Declaration.

“Since its introduction in 2008, AWEX has conducted over 14,000 desk audits for NM, CM and PR/AA, the vast majority of non-compliant declarations are reported to the market prior to wool being offered for sale and just over 2000 on-farm inspections.

“The NWD Integrity Program (NWD-IP) is robust and in 2019 the NWD-IP became ISO9001 certified,” he said.

“A strength of the NWD is that it has been developed in consultation with industry, for industry and that continues today.”

Mr Grave said AWEX has always advocated the value of transparent and accurate information (truth in labelling) to maintain a confident and informed market.

“The transparency and integrity of the NWD-IP, its operational procedures, the eight reviews already conducted and the communication AWEX has with industry regarding non-compliance (including post sale) are critical to the level of confidence the industry has in this program.

“All programs rely on rules and definitions and these give confidence and certainty to those who use the NWD-IP and the entire market,” he said.

“After 12 years the NWD-IP has evolved and clearly there is interest, from stakeholders, in further change to the NWD in relation to sheep freeze branding.”

Mr Grave said the AWEX board announced in March, at the end of a long consultation and review period, that it recognised the potential consequences of making a decision (with respect to sheep freeze branding) without the benefit of independent, clear and concise scientific analysis of the use of liquid nitrogen or any new innovation that may be introduced.

“The AWEX board further committed to conduct a review of the NWD with respect to mulesing status, with particular focus on the identification of wool from sheep treated with liquid nitrogen.

“AWEX announced at the time (March) that the review will take place within 12 months or when the results of the scheduled trials, providing clear animal welfare outcomes, are available, whichever comes first,” he said.

“AWEX is committed to this process.”

Mr Grave said with respect to the NWD, AWEX’s position is that any change/review will only be considered in consultation with industry.

“This is important to the transparency of the NWD and the confidence industry places in it.

“It would undermine the process if AWEX independently made changes to the NWD without consultation,” he said.

“Changes to any program, in the wool industry, are normally implemented at the start of a new season.

“This gives time to communicate the change, time for the development of software if required and even then, a transition period applies due to legacy documentation, just as it has with the change from PR to AA.”

Mr Grave said the NWD will continue to evolve and SustainaWOOL is independent of the NWD.

However, he said SustainaWOOL builds on the information created by the NWD and adds additional information and detail regarding animal welfare, environmental and social issues relevant to its grower members and supply chain partners.

“AWEX understands the importance of the upcoming NWD review and acknowledges the views being expressed which will play an important part of any consideration.”


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  1. Peter Small, November 13, 2020

    Unless contributors to comments on Sheep Central can start to consider a total industry view, rather than peddle their own self interest, then they will ultimately gain very little from the outcome on this issue.

  2. Chick Olsson, November 13, 2020

    Fully agree with Dirk Stevens. There is a strong case now that the NWD is doing much damage to the reputation of Aussie wool, allowing freeze brand surgery to be called non-mulesed is the height of nonsense in real terms. It is playing into the hands of animal rights groups, dividing our industry and cruelling the beauty of our wool product in international markets. Can anyone imagine a more stupid marketing campaign to market our wool as either mulesed or non-mulesed wool?

  3. Don Mudford, November 12, 2020

    G’day Dirk, you are so correct. Ten years ago we added mules-free to our Parkdale brand so it appears in the sale catalogue. We have been rewarded for that with good premiums. We are running out of room on the bales to add “not freeze branded”, so I say to AWEX, listen to our customers and consumers via processors. They don’t won’t breech modification of any kind. Don’t cover up industry denial. I say to non-breech, non-modification wool growers: support the proposed non-mulesed non-breech modification wool sale to be held in the New Year. Let the rest of the industry drown in their own denial. There’s no leadership left. It’s a bit like a game of sport; sometimes we need to win the game on many fronts.

  4. John Symons, November 11, 2020

    Mr Steven’s sounds as if he has got the game sewn up and no problems, if he gets his sheep crutched in April and shorn in September. No doubt, as such an informed wool grower, he does a clean up prior to shearing. The whole deal sounds great, all I ask is that he supplies enough labour for me and every other wool grower to crutch and shear and drag up at the same time. This may create a few marketing issues, but no doubt he has a plan for that.
    I am over reading this endless diatribe, let the market sort it out, and if they pay enough extra, then I will join in as well, and where will the premium be? Those that think the premium is so important and wish to continue receiving it, just keep it a secret and bag up.

    • Bill Walker, November 19, 2020

      “…and if they pay enough extra, then I will join in as well..”
      An interesting quote from John Symons, which totally ignores the fact that breeding toward a mules-free flock doesn’t exactly occur over night. Genetics rule the roost here and especially those that promote the potential to grow enough staple length to shear twice yearly from safe, free skins (and breech) that allow this to naturally occur. Combine this with the added bonus of high fertility, low breech wrinkle/cover and fibre density – a phenomena highly associated with the skin type, and you’ll see why the Dirk Steven’s story should possibly be part of any ag school’s curriculum.

    • Andrew Michael, November 12, 2020

      John, I wonder how naive you are? “Let the market sort it out”? When the market sorts it out we will loose our credibility for meat and wool.

    • donald cameron, November 11, 2020

      You will certainly find out soon enough, but why smash the image of wool before moving on?
      What are your priorities? Do you not realise that consumers will not tolerate mulesing?
      Do you care for the future of the wool industry?

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