Populate or innovate — more Merino wool ‘acres’ might not be of benefit

Andrew Farran, April 10, 2017

Will more Merino wool benefit growers?

In the following letter, Western District wool grower Andrew Farran — who attended the recent Elders Balmoral Sire Evaluation Field day at ‘Tuloona’, Harrow, in Victoria — gives his take on the issues of the historically low Merino flock, the implications of increasing wool production and how innovation has contributed to industry viability and might in the future.

On April 3 Sheep Central reported the respected industry adviser Robert Herrmann’s remarks at the recent excellent Balmoral Sire Evaluation Field Day at Harrow, where Western Victorian wool and sheep meat producers were “urged to innovate to reclaim ‘acres’ from competing commodities and to take some responsibility to adopt new technology and practices on farm”. Click here to read Sheep Central’s story on Mr Herrmann’s presentation.

As one who attended that event, it was noted that Mr Herrmann’s presentation was preceded by a hand-out which put the issues he was addressing in even more stark terms and where it was asked: “Is it now or never for Merinos?”

While the talk broadened to take in all sheep, it was the Merino aspect that was of particular interest to this wool grower audience. There was a paradox; however, in that while wool production measured in bales has fallen by half in recent decades, the wool price for the finer lines is higher now than ever.

In this regard, there has been no lack of innovation, as measured by the improved attributes of the modern day Merino through developments with genetics, feeding regimes, animal husbandry or whatever, that have contributed vastly to productivity. It is a moot point; however, whether the lot of wool growers by and large would be improved by reclaiming the alleged ‘lost acres’.

As for lack of innovation on the part of wool growers, the very subject matter of the field day and the dedicated work of the Sire Evaluation Group, was evidence to the contrary. While wool growers might be criticised for little change in wool harvesting, handling and packaging, this is evidence of the intractability of those processes. A sheep is a living creature and cannot be fed into a computerised machine like slaughtered sheep for deboning at the abattoir. Wool bales still meet all practical requirements from the farm to processing. Where improvement can be found is with the design and layout of wool sheds, many of which remain relics of bygone eras.

Wool prices, the main driver, are led by demand, not supply. Overall demand has fallen away and would have fallen further, but for the innovative ways that manufactured wool products have been developed through technology for much wider uses than the traditional lines of before, especially in the areas of sports, industrial and leisure wear. These have added a fresh perspective to wool utilisation, which has kept demand close to current supply.

But it doesn’t follow that an increase in supply, let alone a vast increase, would do wool growers any favour. Those who remain at the finer end of wool production cannot be accused of failing to innovate. As always they remain dependent on downstream users for their product. The best they can do is make its production as efficient as possible and as near as possible to the specifications required by those end users.

Where resistance is more likely to be found is down the line with brokers and buyers who are still resisting innovative selling and distribution systems. In this digital age open cry auctions would seem an anachronism. Much is now expected from initiatives in this area which allow for substantively more transparency in the whole process for wool from farm to garment.

Let’s acknowledge reality where progress is being achieved and promote it where it might be achieved.

Andrew Farran,

Wool grower via Edenhope,



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