AUSTRALIAN sheep meat and wool research and development should be “under the one roof”, according to Nuffield scholar Anthony Close.
In his final report, the western Victorian sheep and beef farmer recommended that the sheep meat research and development responsibilities of Meat & Livestock Australia be combined with wool R&D “under the one roof.”
“So we create a sheep industry body that is solely focussed on sheep producers and sheep, and their long-term sustainability and profitability.”
He said the wool R&D body, Australian Wool Innovation, and MLA, had vested interests to “push their own products that will help increase their levies”.
Anthony farms at ‘Kurra Wirra’ at Culla in western Victoria where he runs commercial and seedstock Merino and beef cattle operation with his parents and two brothers.
The 28 year-old originally borrowed a slogan for his scholarship topic from former US president Donald Trump to ‘Make Merinos Great Again,’ but he changed this to ‘Investigate ways that Merinos can once again become a prominent feature of the Australian farming landscape.’
Structure, marketing and technology changes needed
Anthony said the three most important things that would make the most difference to Australia’s sheep sector were industry structure, wool marketing and new technology.
He said the sheep industry has been hamstrung for a long time by its levy bodies not working together, with money wasted on the duplication of research, government policy and lobbying.
“Why are we in the same research and development group (Meat & Livestock Australia) as beef producers, especially northern ones?”
“As sheep producers we need to get out of beef’s shadow.
“MLA is dominated by big cattle people and we are a small industry compared to cattle.”
Anthony said there was also “a conflict of interest when it comes to the trade table.”
The young producers said his Nuffield tour through 11 countries to look at many industry structures and farms made him appreciate the levy-funded research and development bodies in Australia and how vital they are.
“It also showed me how important it is to have united farmers behind them and how great things can happen on farm and how quickly it can happen if we get a clear focus and all in the right direction,” he said.
Anthony said the current challenge sheep producers face is the disunity – with the different production focusses of wool and meat from different breeds across the country is dividing people and keeps them apart.
“We have separate R and D bodies for the one animal, and they don’t work well enough together, because they don’t have aligned core values.”
Anthony said the antagonistic relationship between wool and meat production is a problem although producers only care that profits are being made.
Long-term wool contracts are key to rebuilding Merino industry
Anthony said Merino wool is a fundamental point of difference to other sheep breeds, but producers needed to “get it right if we are going to make the Merino great again.”
He said mainly thanks to AWI he got unbelievable access to the wool supply chain attending the Nanjing Wool Conference sat in on trade talks between Australia and China, attended the Intertextile convention, “picked the brains” of AWI’s global marketing staff and New Zealand brokers, and also visited the five biggest wool processors in China, three in the United Kingdom and two in Italy, asking questions “with no filters.” He also talked to brands across the world and farmers in Australia and New Zealand.
“The current situation is that wool goes to the auction system, then we lose contact.
“We get bugger all feedback except for price and even then it is hard to determine what drove that price.”
Anthony said only knowing the person next to you in the supply chain breeds short-term thinking.
“Long-term contracts are the key for rebuilding the Australian wool industry.”
He said New Zealand Merino brokers 70 percent of the country’s wool and 70pc of that is contracted for three, five or 10 years, backed by the quality assurance program ZQ.
“I could see that long-term contract brought everyone into the mindset of how we can build the supply chain together … build the pie.
“Everyone in the supply chain can budget and invest in their business as they know exactly what the forecast price will be, taking the risk out of the supply chain for everyone,” he said.
He recognised wool is produced on a different scale in Australia, “but it is something we really need to learn from.”
“The contracts are linking producers to brands, which allowed information to freely flow up and down the supply chain, giving them the knowledge to adapt and change before issues even arise.
“We don’t buy and sell wool any more, we sell the story behind it,” he said, quoting Francesco Botto Poala, chief of operations at Italian fabric manufacturer.
“He believes that this type of supply chain is what we need for the future to allow him to sell the story behind the wool.”
He recommended brokers do more marketing and change the supply chain to negotiate more long-term contracts between producers and brands.
“Wool growers need to sign up to quality assurance programs to assure customers of their environmental, social and animal welfare statuses.”
Use virtual fencing and footrot resistant genetics to regain ground
Anthony also investigated the technologies of virtual fencing and footrot resistance breeding values.
He saw value in applying virtual fencing could lift sheep numbers on northern cropping properties where permanent fences have been removed, and in using footrot EBVs to reintroduce composite sheep into wetter, southern areas.
“I believe these two new technologies will help (sheep) regain some lost ground.”
He said the result of the footrot EBV-based selection in New Zealand where, unlike in Australia, the condition is not a declarable disease.
“There isn’t a stigma around it and no-one is shut out of markets; they just get on with dealing with the problem.
“We need to change the stigma in Australia around footrot, so people deal with the problem, rather than suppressing and ignoring it.”
He said footrot as a trait is controlled by 14 different chromosomes, is 18pc heritable and there is plenty of genetic variation to enable progress through breeding.
“They are pushing sheep back into areas of New Zealand that they never thought possible, thanks to this breeding value.
Anthony said Australian legislation need to be change so that footrot is not a declarable disease and invest in footrot EBV linkage trials here to build footrot resistance as a trait commercial producers can use.
Anthony said virtual fencing could be the single biggest quantum leap in livestock production. It could save labour costs and was the only way he could see large-scale integration of livestock occurring in cropping areas where fences have been removed but there was good connectivity infrastructure. With the pressures on herbicide usage, livestock could play an active role in summer weed control and there is potential for bushfire hazard reduction grazing, he said.
“Virtual fencing technology would jump the industry from merely being mechanical with minimal parts of the industry being precision agriculture to an industry that is near autonomous.
“Precision ag would be at every sheep producers’ fingertips through their mobile device and certain parts of their sheep management would become autonomous.”
He visited Nofence Grazing Technology in Norway which has virtual fencing commercially available for sheep, goats and cattle. Other companies like Agersens in Australia and Halter in New Zealand would be releasing products for cattle very soon.
“Nofence is still very expensive, while Agersens is supposed to be in the black on a cost-benefit analysis for cattle, but not quite there for sheep, due to the number of collars needed.”
Anthony said livestock are also the key to regenerative agriculture and building soil carbon.
“To get livestock back in there could be huge for the cropping soils.”
Australia need to continue to invest in virtual fencing to make it a viable technology for sheep producers, he said.
Cropping has been the biggest threat
Anthony said the issue with the Australian sheep industry is that there has been a significant drop in the sheep flock from 150 million in 1992 to less than 70 million now and a proportionate drop in wool production. He said cropping has been the biggest threat to sheep farming.
“For a long period sheep have lost the fight to cropping for acres and we’ve seen a massive movement from sheep production into crop production.”
Next issue is a significant decline in the workforce, with not many young sheep farmers replacing the older generation,” he said.
“Eighty five percent of sheep labour is actually family labour.”
Mr Close said he found it hard to understand that people were flocking out of sheep when benchmarking at Kurra Wirra and elsewhere in the sheep industry showed that Merinos and sheep were very profitable low-risk enterprises.
“So people don’t just follow the money, is what I am trying to say.”
This “mass exodus” and the fact that Merinos were the family business led him to his Nuffield topic.
“Merinos are part of our DNA and we’re passionate about them, so to see people leaving the industry at a rapid rate of knots just didn’t sit right with me.”
Anthony thanked Nuffield, all wool levy payers and Australian Wool Innovation for the opportunity to undertake the scholarship.