TO THE BOARD OF AUSTRALIAN WOOL INNOVATION
A Sheep Central article on September 11 indicated that Australian Wool Innovation has made some fundamental changes to its approach to industry extension on sheep genetics in the pursuit of ‘balance’ and, I presume, that board approval was required for this.
The article indicated that some existing AWI staff have been replaced by a professional sheep classer and others, who will be charged with the responsibility of teaching the time-honoured skills of sheep classing as part of the National Merino Challenge. It was inferred that the time available for teaching objective measurement, and its underlying science, may be a victim of this changed approach.
Instead of cutting edge extension to assist wool producers to improve productivity and profitability, AWI appears to be pre-occupied with preserving tradition with a sheep classer.
Why is AWI funding a sheep classer to waste an opportunity to influence the next generation of wool growers for the better?
Therefore, please could you provide compelling evidence that quantitative genetic principles and objective measurement are not the primary drivers of predictable genetic and financial progress in wool-growing sheep, as they are in pasture species, crops, pigs, poultry, dairy, beef cattle, and the rest?
Further, can you provide any evidence at all that the visual classing of wool growing sheep on genetic merit, results in an economic outcome that is superior to any other method for any flock?
I am the first to concede that the visual classing of sheep has a role to play, but it should just be to remove serious economic fault, usually no more than 7-8 percent of the drop, if the ram supplier knows what she or he is doing. All that is needed is to know what face muffle is, what a black spot looks like, what fleece derangement in all its forms looks like and how toes that point to the sky, present. Even a first year jackaroo can perform that task perfectly well with less than half an hour of training. Apart from that, objective measurement should do the rest.
I should make it clear that I have nothing against sheep classers, as they obviously have a place in flocks where their activity is deemed worthwhile by the owners. This issue is confined to whether it is appropriate for AWI to employ a sheep classer for the stated role.
Objective evidence trumps myth and mystery
Profit-driven wool producers need to use every available sensible tool to grow their wool business profitability, making decisions that are evidence-based. That is why they are strongly committed to the use of objective measurement. It provides indisputable hard evidence at every step in the production process, unlike visual and tactile alternatives which in 2017, should be a part of industry history.
In dedicated, profit-driven wool-growing flocks, fleece value is paramount. Once you determine the required operating return for your business, it is easy to calculate the minimum fleece value on a sheep to warrant its retention in the flock, and this then becomes the primary basis for the culling cut-off point. If you have a profit motive, it is that simple, as it is all about fleece value!
Science always wins in the end, because objective evidence never fails to trump myth and mystery in any field of human endeavour. Marry good science up with sound economics and you have a financially sustainable business model for wool production in 2017 and beyond.
Challenge to sheep classers
Therefore, may I respectfully suggest that you give the following serious consideration? Find a wool flock, any flock, and randomly draft off 20 wethers on the point of shearing after the sheep with serious economic fault have been removed by the jackaroo. Invite all known professional sheep classers to turn up to class them on fibre diameter, greasy fleece weight and, ultimately fleece value. Greasy fleece weight can be converted to clean weight for the purpose of price derivation after the classers have nominated the yield.
Each sheep should have those figures stated and the fleece value calculated after prices are made available to the classers, race-side. Ask them to rank the sheep in descending order of total fleece value (to within $0.50), 1-20. Put up a prize of $100K for the winner, who has to get everything spot on, using visual and tactile skills alone. To be consistent with the apparent AWI need for ‘balance’, sheep classer participants must agree to pay AWI $100K if they get it wrong, even by a fraction. If your confidence in sheep classers is justified, they will all line up for this challenge to potentially walk away $100K richer. Make a big show of it with an awards ceremony that may even hit national television.
I know with absolute certainty that the classers will not be able to do it; humans cannot, no matter how good their visual and tactile skills are. I also know that objective measurement can do it every single time, with precision and predictability. It is not up to me to prove this, it is up to you, given your reported direction change and appointment.
Proposed AWI extension topics
Finally, please could you provide an explanation as to why the following potential AWI extension course topics, to the best of my knowledge, have never seen the light of day?
The profit drivers in wool flocks; how to identify and improve them;
The history and development of objective measurement in Australian Merino sheep and how it has changed our thinking and progress;
How to use quantitative genetics and ASBV’s to drive genetic progress and business performance;
How some wool flock selection indexes can keep your business ahead of declining terms of trade in Australian agriculture and why some of them cannot;
Why flock fertility is not a profit driver in dedicated wool flocks and how a lack of understanding of this has seriously misled the industry;
How to set up and manage a wool production business that will endear you to the Australian Tax Office.
Unfortunately at the moment, those of us in the wool industry who have a profit motive and believe that science and economics will provide the best tools for the path forward, are probably in the minority. All I can do is state the above on my and their behalf and hope that at least the majority of you will be cognisant of the word ‘Innovation’ in the title of the body that you are charged with governing, if progress is the objective.