Stock Handling & Animal Welfare

NSW wool grower urges AWI to promote non-mulesed production

Sheep Central, April 27, 2020

New South Wales Merino wool grower Jim Gordon.

THE Gordon family has grown wool in the Young area since the early 1900s and currently joins about 1500 Merino ewes in what was, until the recent drought, a sheep-cattle operation. They stopped mulesing in 2015 after a few years of joining bare-breeched plain-bodied Merino rams, reacting to the trade’s demand for non-mulesed wool.

In this opinion piece, Mr Gordon puts his case for Australian Wool Innovation to encourage Merino breeders to move to plain-bodied sheep to remove the need for mulesing and increase production of non-mulesed wool.



IS it time to have a close look at Australian Wool Innovation?

Can someone tell me why I have to pay a levy to an organisation that is fighting me on everything I am trying to do?

One example; I need shearers, yet AWI took funding away from the shearing school at Wagga. Was it politics? The Wagga school at Riverina TAFE was promoting plain-bodied non-mulesed sheep. It was trying to teach young people to shear, which is very difficult on wrinkly sheep; shearers tend to cut them badly.

How do levy payers get back control of their levies?  Someone in government please help.  We are in dark times while ever I sell a bale of wool in Australia for which AWI has controlled how much levy I have to pay, and who I have to pay that levy to. It stinks.

Why can’t we get an independent organisation to set up a voting system that is fair and completely transparent for 0, 0.5, 1, 1.5, 2, 2.5 and 3 percent levy options? Let the levy payer choose the amount of levy they would like to pay, without any influence from AWI.

Wool growers, wool brokers, exporters, early processors, brands, and retailers are all struggling to keep their heads above water at the moment. Yet AWI is sitting up there in its ivory tower with $100 million, giving instructions on what the trade should be doing.  Everyone in the pipeline would prefer non-mulesed wool, but the trade are so weakened by COVID-19 at the moment, they are just trying to survive.

Instead of AWI trying to convince the trade they need to use wool from mulesed sheep, why doesn’t AWI try to convince wool growers to produce non-mulesed wool, then brands and retailers can stock their online catalogues with confidence?

This year, AWI has dragged $30 million dollars out of our reserves to make up the $100 million dollar budget. Next year, will they drag $60 million out.

AWI chair Colette Garnsey keeps sending me correspondence with words like: “how we are continuing to work for growers”, yet AWI is fighting me on everything I am trying to do. Then Ms Garnsey talks about “ensuring sustainability”. AWI is definitely not sustainable — $30 million extra this year, maybe $60 million next year, that leaves $30 million. They started with 120 million in reserves.

It’s the same story as the Holden motor car in Australia. Why is AWI backing a horse (mulesing) that is going to be scratched? Is AWI pouring money into something that that wool industry will eventually have to abandon?

There is not one early processor, retailer, brand, or welfare group that doesn’t prefer non-mulesed wool. Yet AWI will not get behind this and back it. It fluffs around the edges, pretending to be supportive.

A bare breech Merino ram.

This photo I include is of a Merino ram with a beautiful bare breech. If wool growers use this type of Merino, the genetics will flow through their flock like a bushfire. Find and use a similar ram on the daughters, and the granddaughters will be there. No need for any breech modifications.

If I show this ram to the welfare groups and explain how and why I am using him, and the outcomes, every welfare person in the world will give me a tick of approval.

AWI is having meetings with brands and retailers regularly, showing videos and telling the story of what wool growers are up to. They have an enormous influence on the brands and retailers.

But AWI doesn’t give a toss about the welfare groups. I attended a day AWI put on for all the welfare groups in Sydney early in 2019. I would hate to think what it cost. They had another scheduled for early April this year, except COVID-19 Interfered.

AWI bashed their ears for seven hours about what it was doing in the so-called animal welfare areas. I estimated they have spent $40 million or more in the breech flystrike area to find a solution to mulesing. But they will never find a solution while they don’t encourage breeders to remove the wrinkles from sheep.

The welfare groups were so disappointed.  AWI didn’t mention about encouraging wool growers to stop mulesing, which was the only thing all the welfare groups wanted to hear.

Why I am so frustrated?  It doesn’t affect AWI, but it really affects me as a wool producer.  The welfare groups are meeting with the trade and saying, ‘we are not happy, nothing has changed’. The welfare people want all breech modifications to stop. These people are not going away.

If the wool industry genetically changes to a sheep that doesn’t need breech modifications, the welfare groups will give us a tick of approval and disappear. They will go back to worrying about the Orangutans in Borneo. If we don’t, they will keep being a major thorn in our side forever and there are thousands of them — all potential customers.

The brands and retailers won’t move without support from the welfare groups. We have to get everyone completely on side. The stupid thing is, the sheep that does this, also doesn’t get flyblown and has more lambs, with better shape.

With the major increase in online shopping, it is critical now to have a simple message on that label: non-mulesed, in the case of animal welfare. It would have been better to have include mulesed with pain relief, but politics once again got involved. The only loser is the wool producer, but who cares?

As wool growers, we have to focus on what the trade wants, not what our fathers wanted. AWI is fighting this all the way to the inevitable – that is the end of mulesing. The practice of breech modifications will have to stop. The trade will insist, in order to be able to sell woollen apparel.

Another area where millions upon millions is being spent by AWI is trying to find a cure for flyblown sheep. Chemical resistance is rampant.  Yet, this same bare-breeched sheep in the photo will fly proof your flock in about the same time as the mules-free objectives.

A very wrinkly breech on a Merino ewe.

You only have to ask the resident expert Narelle Sales from NSW DPI. If you get the dreaded wrinkle of your sheep they will dry out quickly and there is no stagnant moisture left between in the wrinkles to grow the bacteria that attracts the flies.

These are the reasons I get so frustrated with AWI. It’s like AWI wants to promote mulesing and wrinkly sheep to maintain the status quo in AWI’s research budget, employing 40 or 50 people in lifetime research and development jobs, including AWI management. For heaven’s sakes, the levy payers aren’t running a charity service.

If you are producing wool for next-to-skin wear or high-end women’s fashion, it has to have 100pc comfort. The thing that retailers hate more than most things is returns. If a customer returns a garment because it pills or is scratchy, they won’t come back.

You don’t get 100pc comfort automatically from wool under 30 microns. It is the softness, the lack of stiffness in the staple, which gives 100pc comfort. The fast-growing, soft-handling, bold-crimping wools, are the go. The old timers knew this.

Ms Garnsey talks about and I quote “AWI remains focussed on facilitating the development of a 10-year strategic plan.” Pity help us; more money burnt.

You can’t tell me that all the manufacturers, retailers, and brands don’t know what they are doing with promotion. Let them handle it, not AWI. The wool growers and our peak body should be focusing on producing what the trade wants – non-mulesed wool giving 100pc comfort. It is critical for the online shopper.

Jim Gordon,

Young, NSW.


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  1. Deane Goode, May 2, 2020

    Excellent story. Maybe it is only AWI fighting us. Where are the traditional mulesing breeders today? Obviously not online, I guess they’re out tending their fragile sheep.

  2. Bill Walker, April 30, 2020

    Jim Gordon is to be respected, in fact, already is respected by many, due to not only his stance on the mulesing discussion, but on a wide range of critical facets across this great industry. His understanding of Merino skin biology, the wool processing advantages of a fibre that is created by such skins and the added bonus of correlations with all this and plain breeches (of unmulesed potential) is to be admired.

    AWI is one discussion, yet I believe the threat and existence of ‘dead wood’ stud enterprises across all states, even in this day and age, so guilty of breeding atrocities resembling those old black and whites back in the 50’s, are still this industry’s major stumbling block. Strangely, some of these are broad ribbon winners — as recently as 2019 — horribly suggesting to the emerging youth of the wool-growing fraternity that this is an allowable and important part of the game! 😩🥕

    Many of these operations can only hope that the silver bullet will be bestowed upon them in an artificial form of mulesing that just might pass the non-mulesed test. Should ‘steining’ (or freeze branding) do just that, there should be national uproar. Genetics is the only answer, with many studs contributing to today’s non-mulesed success – such genetics are available to all and it ain’t no secret where to source them.

    AWI has had no influence in the breeding directions that our commercial and stud clients have taken since the ‘big scare’ regarding mulesing protests around a decade and a half ago. Then, it was essential to lift reproductive rates, staple length and more, so investigate the ways and means of breeding a more balanced animal that could be a tool to non-mulesing success and thus no wrinkle.

    Those enterprises that explored the ways and means of identifying the tools to make it all happen successfully, are now of huge popularity.

    Today I class a large contingent of flocks that are unmulesed with many reaching that status over ten years ago. Keep that fleece weight balanced then fertility, muscle, staple length and overall production can only improve. Whack it on and all of these bonuses disappear including the important one which is the thrust of this conversation – the ability to non mules.

    Jim, those Orangutans in Borneo will be endangered for a long time yet. Workshops this year hosted by your good self are this nations only chance of awareness of this important subject. Days like these, as were those great Watts workshops in the 90’s, are our only chance of getting the message across – hopefully with AWI funding!

  3. Dominic Hallam, April 29, 2020

    Well said Jim. My question for AWI is this, and it’s only one question. Why does AWI not want to promote the genetic solution of plain-bodied Merinos that do not require mulesing? Think logically.

    • Doug Wright, April 29, 2020

      Excellent question.
      This is the place for the industry to find out.

  4. Michael Craig, April 29, 2020

    Imagine if we had turned the threat of mulesing into an opportunity to prove the natural status of our product?
    I am a crap farmer right, but the fact I can find a genetic path with a straight forward breech-scoring and corrective mating program over the last 13 years shows it isn’t rocket science. What disappointments me is how little progress the studs have made and the leadership vacuum at AWI has been filled by self-interest.
    One interesting learning we have had is the positive effect on fertility. Of the 31,700 ewes that I have breech scored, and whose fertility is tracked over their whole lifetime, we can show the fertility is better for low breech wrinkle/bareness ewes compared to the high scoring ones. So for an industry struggling for numbers after drought, and combined with our learnings from this pandemic, that the world needs meat protein, not wool, isn’t it time we evolved as one sheep industry to grow the pie?
    Sure, it ain’t going to be easy, but I’m a crap farmer and I can do it.

    • Jim Gordon, April 29, 2020

      Michael Craig, you are so right and well-written. We may see wool sell for well under production costs soon, or be unsalable. However, not sheep; people must eat or perish. Meat protein will play a big part. For sheep meat to exist, someone has to breed them. This is where you come in with your genetic pathway. It’s terrific you have shared your on-farm long-term research program with us. The more skin, the less lambs.

    • Doug Wright, April 29, 2020

      The lack of leadership at AWI is obvious and has been for a long time. Despite this, great progress has been made by many producers, applying basic knowledge going back to the 1930s. Plain-bodied, wrinkle-free, bare-headed ewes are highly fertile and wean large numbers of lambs. Michael Craig has, with his observations, again proved this to be correct and with his sheep type and management skills, is doing his bit to build the Australian sheep flock.
      Whilst this is going on AWI, is taking the wool levy and providing the levy payer with very little value. The time has come for leadership and progressive thinking from AWI before it is too late to salvage anything.

    • Andrew Michael, April 29, 2020

      Well done, Jimmy Gordon, for being passionate, honest and emotional.
      When you talk about pain relief, our industry can’t bring itself to make pain relief for mulesing mandatory. When lambs are mulesed, we need research to cover the mulesing effect for the next 40 days also.
      Thanks Michael Craig, for your outstanding comments, though I’m not sure about your farming skill comments.
      Our sheep industry products are meat, wool and skins; all of which are impacted by Australia mulesing our lambs. The wool industry has worn the brunt of scrutiny from around the world and it has been handled poorly in many areas for more than 13 years. I was sent an email recently from a wool industry representative which had a link to a Sheep Central article on September 27th 2017 which concerned me greatly.
      * Has the meat industry not learnt anything or been proactive.
      * Many first cross lambs are mulesed. Can anyone tell me why and how do we defend this?
      Michael, the Merino Lifetime Productivity Project data from six years of trial work, which you have been a part of, was entered into Sheep Genetics on the 21st of April. The ASBVs for reproduction, breech wrinkle, breech cover, adult fleece weight and many other traits will have a massive increase in volume and accuracies.

    • Trevor Ryan, April 29, 2020

      Michael, you make some very valid points. The problem as I see it, is that there is an ingrained perception throughout the industry that greasy fleece weight is the most financially important trait of the Merino sheep. While this may have been true 30 years ago, it is not the case today.
      The easiest way to increase greasy fleece weight is to increase skin thickness and wrinkle, but the problem is that the more energy the animal directs to wool production, the less is available for other equally important traits, such as fertility and meat production.
      Many growers are concerned that the possible reduction in fleece weight will effect their profitability and this concern is perpetuated by many classers, stud masters and industry leaders, who influence commercial growers and preside over ewe competitions, wether trials and the like. The reality; however, is that most modern, plain-bodied animals with mules-free genetics are not less profitable, but are simply redirecting their energy toward other areas of production.
      As a stud breeder, we have been breeding mules-free sheep for 15 years and are more than happy with ours and our clients’ profitability per head and per acre. We understand that Merino sheep need to cut good commercial fleece weights, but are trying to achieve this with realistic goals in mind that don’t adversely effect other important production areas.
      The Australian Merino industry needs to be re-educated on what a profitable sheep looks like, and when this happens, then hopefully we will be able to confidently address the mulesing issue. If this doesn’t happen voluntarily, then we may find that the consumer driven international wool markets will make the decision for us.

  5. Jack Cleary, April 28, 2020

    Jim, the first response was my writing in support of your idea. The sheep bred and adapted for Australia are not suited to the climate. Graziers become inured to the livestock pain, with sheep being mulesed and castrated with rings. Justification of both is well known. AWI suffers the problem of differentiation, which exists throughout industry, societies, sport, politics and home life. They mistake authority and power for leadership and guidance. They then fantasise about themselves as role models. Generally ‘the public’, and more so ‘their public’, believe them, as is happening now, with the corporate governing of ‘football’ dictating to us what they will do. I support your call to arms for forcing AWI to promote clean breeches and to be audited regularly for their income and expenditure, while also expending energy, ideas and money in facilitating — even buying — suitable genetic material to get rid of ‘wrinkle.’ It will also save the lives of people incorrectly handling and applying organophosphates.

    • Jim Gordon, April 28, 2020

      Jack, thank you for being a clear thinker. What comments, brilliant. I am desperately trying to take the emotion and politics out of this situation. Please, please, others speak up, am I the only one out of all the wool growers that feels this way?
      We only need $5-$10 million with an office somewhere with three or four people collecting the 0.5 percent levies and go from there.
      We have got to get rid of this $100 million gravy train that has been left over from the 175 million sheep era.
      What are all the readers’ thoughts? Please bring others to Sheep Central and read my article. I don’t know any other way to get wool growers to get involved. You all must have thoughts on the whole AWI juggernaut.

  6. Hansi Graetz, April 27, 2020

    Thanks Jim ,
    I share your frustration with AWI. Where’s the leadership from our peak body? The levy collected from the sale of “bare natural breeched wool”, should be allocated back to the promotion of naturally breeched woollen product. Maybe when 51 percent of the Australian wool clip comes from naturally breeched sheep things will change. It takes a lot of courage and vision to bring big issues forward and I really hope the right people take action.

  7. Peter Small, April 27, 2020

    Well Jim, you have identified the Australian wool industry’s number one problem — AWI. What is the answer? I have been banging on about our statutory wool bodies for 30 years. You cannot change them; their culture is endemic. We need an avalanche of growers like you to face this and act.

    • Jim Gordon, April 28, 2020

      Peter, thank you. I can understand AWI not changing, they are just protecting their jobs. However, the Italians have changed with the consumer, with most of their lives climatically controlled these days. Their buying habits have changed. Why won’t the wool growers change? If only they would buy one ram that will take the wrinkle off and join him to 100 ewes. Just give it a go. Why is everyone so frightened of change?

  8. Doug Wright, April 27, 2020

    Marketing 101 – give the market what it wants and make it better than your competitors.
    AWI should be giving consideration to the basics of marketing and doing everything to promote the supply of non-mulesed wool to meet a growing demand.
    Failure to do so could see a further contraction of wool as a fibre of choice.

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