A NEW South Wales wool grower has shorn 22,000 sheep on a shearing platform system and does not intend to return to conventional shearing.
Former Meat and Livestock Australia director Grant Burbidge said he will continue to shear his sheep on an engineer-built platform system after a successful trial last year.
Mr Burbidge and his wife Annette, operate a 22,000 sheep 17 micron fine wool business near Tarcutta on New South Wale’s south west slopes. He is a graduate of Wool and Pastoral Science at the University of NSW and wrote the first Clip Care manual.
Mr Burbidge has a philosophy that to be successful in agriculture as an individual or an industry, the only static thing should be change.
Last year the Burbidge’s shore all their sheep on four professionally-engineered upright shearing platforms over five months using untrained local and backpacker workers. Workers were initially paid by the hour and then per sheep.
Potential to reduce platform shearing costs
Mr Burbidge was reluctant to disclose the exact costs of his first platform shearing, except to say it was comparable to contract shearing rates. He hoped to reduce costs by $1.50-$2 per sheep at subsequent shearings through equipment modifications and by using staff he trained last year.
The Burbidges initially started with people who had no previous shearing experience and despite some issues with using untrained workers and backpackers, Mr Burbidge does not intend to go back to conventional shearing.
“One guy who had never seen a sheep before ended up being the best – doing over 100 per day.
“Another of the trainees was a 58 kg Welsh backpacker girl who was shearing 60 to 70 per day after 10 weeks.”
Mr Burbidge said the problem with backpackers is that they are not around for long enough.
“Training is expensive so you need people who will to continue working longer than their visa requirements.”
Burbidge found existing platforms unsatisfactory
Mr Burbidge said upright posture shearing platforms are not new. These have included initiatives funded by Australian Wool Innovation, such as the ShearEzy system developed with Peak Hill Industries and the mobile chain-shearing system Shear Express.
“In the 1940’s there was at least one on the market.
“For the last 25 years I had hoped that someone would develop some sort of upright shearing system which I could use,” Mr Burbidge said.
“About six years ago I decided that ’if it was going to be, it was up to me’.
“I started by trying to find anyone who had tried upright shearing platforms before and looking at what they had done and why it had failed.”
Mr Burbidge said the most successful and only person he believed had a track record of commercially shearing sheep on an upright platform system was Andrew Wytkin who shore a couple of hundred thousand sheep back in the 1980’s on a 2 stand trailer system.
“There are a couple of shearing platforms which can be purchased today, however none of these was satisfactory.
“So it was necessary to develop a system which could be used commercially.”
AWI provided no assistance – Burbidge
Mr Burbidge said he approached Australian Wool Innovation in early 2015 requesting all reports on AWI’s previous work with a number of upright shearing platforms, but was offered no help until a meeting in March this year after the 2015 shearing had been completed.
“And they’ve still provided nothing.
“AWI has provided no information nor any assistance, even though I pay them tens of thousands of dollars a year in wool levies.”
An AWI spokesman confirmed that AWI met with Mr Burbidge in March this year and “offered him any IP he wanted in the area.” AWI has also purchased some upright shearing intellectual property from Western Australia and offered that to Mr Burbidge, the spokesman said.
Mr Burbidge said the key to development was to look at the whole wool harvesting process and work out which were the most critical parts and how to simplify these.
“The second critical aspect was to try and work out why previous attempts at upright shearing platforms had failed and learn from that.”
Peak Hill Industries selling ShearEzy platforms
Peak Hill Industries owner, Bill Byrne, said he had sold about 50 ShearEzy platforms across Australia and overseas from his Peak Hill base in central west NSW.
He said he had loaned one to Mr Burbidge and admitted the platforms were “not selling like hot cakes.” Contractors in South Australia and Western Australia were using them to shear rams, doing up to 100 a day. Mr Byrne recently completed shearing his own flock of 100kg White Suffolk cross ewes using a ShearEzy platform, with his shearer doing up to 130 a day.
“You’ve got to have the right attitude, that’s the main thing.”
Mr Byrne said there also needed to be a culture change among shearers for the platforms to gain wider acceptance. The basic ShearEzy platform retails for about $13,000, rising to around $16,000 depending on the number of add-ons such as shearing machine, ramps and races.
AWI’s Shear Express mothballed
After spending more than $6 million on the Shear Express project, in 2003 AWI ceased funding after an independent evaluation and field trials confirmed the prototype unit had not met key design expectations and targets.
“The lower productivity and consequent higher cost of operation make it uncompetitive with conventional shearing, and the potential add-on benefits the system may offer some woolgrowers do not bridge the gap,” AWI chief executive officer Len Stephens said at the time.
To make Shear Express competitive, productivity would need to be double the 60-70 Merino sheep per hour rate achieved in the trials: “The shortfall is so large that extension of the current trial is not warranted. Indications are that progression of the current technology would require relatively major further investment, with uncertain outcomes.”
However, AWI said the prototype did have some innovative features that could be of potential value to the industry and could be incorporated into other shearing systems.
“Possible applications for the existing machine may exist for woolgrowers who may be willing to pay a premium for the superior shearing and ancillary services offered by the harvester,” Mr Stephens said.
“AWI’s intention is to ensure that the positive and innovative features developed within this project continue to be utilised both within Shear Express and within the wider shearing industry,” he said.
AWI said over 80 potential harvesting technologies were assessed as part of a recently completed search. Promising areas for development include handpiece technology, parallel, modular, upright shearing platforms, as well as alternative shearing technologies.