Opinion: Objective evidence trumps sheep myth and mystery

Farm business consultant Phil Holmes September 21, 2017


Farm business consultant Phil Holmes

AWI directors,

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The article indicated that some existing AWI staff have been replaced by a professional sheep classer and others, who will be charged with the responsibility of teaching the time-honoured skills of sheep classing as part of the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.

In anticipation,

Phil Holmes


Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Your comment will not appear until it has been moderated.
Contributions that contravene our Comments Policy will not be published.


  1. Dianna Martin, October 4, 2017

    To suggest that, “Even a first year jackaroo can perform that task perfectly well with less than half an hour of training”, is an insult to the wool industry. I would like to see his or her flock of sheep after ten years and compare them to the sheep that have been classed by the so-mentioned sheep classer. I can predict that with only half an hour of experience he or she would have gone broke.
    The AWI staff are some of the most passionate wool people I know. They are dedicated to working for wool growers to make their businesses more profitable and are some of the hardest working people in our industry. Many of them were working hard for us this long weekend. They were not sitting in an office in the city. They were in the field talking to wool growers and the public promoting our wonderful industry.
    As a commercial wool grower, I am enjoying a wonderful time in our business. We had one of the most profitable years ever last year. This profit was due to our Merino enterprise. Our ewes are classed visually each year by a stud breeder who is using objective measurement in his stud, in balance with visual classing, to drive profit. Could we please have the media focus on these positive stories.
    Phil Holmes, I challenge you to talk to the young people who have been baffled by figures and have been to the workshops held by the so-mentioned sheep classer in your above article. I am absolutely disgusted with what you have said about our industry. I hope I never see the day when figures take over. One of the first problems with objective measurement is the collection of the mid-side sample. If this sample is not taken exactly on the mid-side of the sheep, the figures you are relying on will not be accurate.
    Please can we have balance in our industry, not just with the classing of our sheep, but also with the reporting by our journalists.

  2. Simon Wells, September 24, 2017

    Gut the AWI, it has a weak, ineffectual, ignorant board, which have done little to improve our future and plenty to keep us in the past.

    Better still, merging with MLA has merit, including cutting a whole layer of lazy management and joining an RDC-focussed on the future,
    not the past.

  3. Keith Bolto, September 23, 2017

    Phil, your article is so true. Most of me thinks I am wasting my $20,000 a year in wool levy. Then there is a part of me thinks that AWI is creating an opportunity for objective measurement, $ fleece value and ASBV-focused sheep producers like myself to get ahead in what is competitive commodity production. The solution to me is for wool producers, who elect the board, to ensure we elect people who are science-focused and progressive. Perhaps we as the industry need to take responsibility for this error.

  4. Jane Overnewton, September 23, 2017

    Yes and the myth continues. These fed up, shedded rams that are consistently driven around the show circuits gaining ribbons and cheers from the sideline continue to baffle us. No results, no science behind their progeny, no dollar or profit data based on their performance out in the real world eg the paddock. But commercial farmers still flock to their on property sales throwing away any sensibility and actual productivity gains or results. The old sheep classers continue to huff and puff, their pockets lined with the dollars made from cash for comments. Look beyond the mirror and sort it out. You are buying a myth, one that has been pushed onto us for generations. Look to see what the innovative farmers are doing, using research, using figures, stopping mulesing, preparing for the future and making changes. No other industry is being held back like the sheep industry.

  5. Mark Bunge, September 23, 2017

    Well said Phil. Totally agree.

  6. John Symons, September 23, 2017

    Great article Phil, but it’s like hitting your head against a brick wall trying to convince the “establishment” to take a look at science. Eventually the younger generation will demand the objective measurement approach and seed stock producers who don’t have the data will fall away. It’s just sad we have AWI as an anchor trying to reduce wool growing to a cottage industry.

  7. Edward Wymer, September 22, 2017

    Phil Holmes is making dogmatic statements like many others who know little about wool, when he says:
    1 “Strongly committed to the use of objective measurement, it provides indisputable hard evidence at every step of the production process ”
    2 “Objective measurement never fails”
    3 ” I also know that objective measurement can do it every single time with precision and predictability ”
    That is weird, Phil is obviously unaware that wool testing has always been a raffle. No lot of wool tested twice, unbeknowns to AWTA ever gets the same test result twice. If you call for a retest the AWTA needs to know the lot number, naturally. If the micron is within 0.4 either side it is confirmed as the original micron. Yield and vegetable matter have similar discrepancies, which as far as the AWTA is concerned is OK.
    Charles Massy, in his 2011 book, ‘Breaking the Sheep’s Back’, called for a modern accurate way of measuring wool. Nothing has happened since. Wool testing is the part of the wool industry that needs modernisation.

  8. Sarcasm is the lowest form of intelligence.

  9. Doug Walker, September 22, 2017

    Bring it on, great idea. There are a lot of people in the stud and commercial field who have lost their way and let figures go from being an important tool to help with breeding decisions alongside classing, to basing all their breeding decisions on figures and their sheep have gone backwards. It is perfect timing to show young sheep breeders coming into the industry that a good sheep classer is still a very important part of any sheep breeding enterprise, before it is to late.

  10. Jim Gough, September 22, 2017

    Well said Phil. However you missed the poor soul who has to buy these untested sires. He cannot assess whether they will take his flock forward or back without objective measurement.

  11. Jim Weibye, September 22, 2017

    There’s honour among thieves and these guys are stealing our future.

  12. Jim Weibye, September 22, 2017

    We are up against the Merino Mafia

  13. The person you are talking about is a hugely regarded sheep classer and has been for 30 years in Australia and New Zealand. Working on both stud and commercial operations, his clients have been very successful in the show rings and sale yards. But more importantly these clients have been very successful in business as well, due to having good genetics in their Merino flocks gained from visual classing. Now there is only a handful for people in this country with the natural ability and years of experience that is needed to be as successful as this bloke. So any body in this industry that gets a chance to learn from someone like this should take the opportunity with both hands. This country was founded on the sheep’s back. Let’s stop all this in-fighting and start working together to make Merinos great again. Full names required in future for reader comments please Doug, as per Sheep Central’s long-standing comments policy: Editor.

  14. John Ross, September 21, 2017

    The “art” of sheep breeding will always be more profitable than what facts and “science” can do and there is definitely no room for combining both. Long live King Wally. Yeh…Na.

  15. Jim Weibye, September 21, 2017

    Knock! Knock! Who’s there? Alpaca. Alpaca who? Alpaca the suitcase, you load up the car!

  16. Simon Wells, September 21, 2017

    Our chaiman looks decidedly sheepish.

    1. Gene technology is the future.

    2. Mulesing is the past. The animal activists will not go away.

    3. Time to vote to reduce the wool tax, for it’s too painful observing how they spend it and the cushy jobs it funds, while I face drought.

    4. Time for one livestock RDC — merge AWI and MLA.

    5. Ensure all elements of the supply chain
    (between woolshed and retail shop)
    contributes equitably to the promotion budget,
    particularly the brokers, exporters and traders
    so no one gets a free ride piggy-backing.

Get Sheep Central's news headlines emailed to you -