A DISPOSAL fee charged by processors for sheep skins of no commercial value has thrown the spotlight on maximising skin quality and the Merino sheep’s edge in value-add markets.
New South Wales commercial wool grower Jim Gordon has studied sheep skin biology for over a decade and has welcomed the industry move as a positive opportunity to highlight the wool, skin and carcase value of Australian Merinos.
Mr Gordon said an understanding of skin quality would give commercial wool growers an edge with their plain bodied sheep in a market paying up to $19 for Merinos with a skin of three inches and over.
In an earlier letter to producers and agents, Thomas Foods International group skins and hides manger Simon Matters flagged his company’s introduction of a disposal fee on any sheep and lamb skins carrying no commercial value from July 31.
The fee mainly affected crossbred and shedding breed lamb skins.
Mr Gordon said skin buyers wanted smooth skins of a consistent, even thickness.
“Skins with heavy wrinkle are prone to tearing along the ribs or dermatones (nerve channels). Hard collagen wraps around these nerve channels creating cord like strips from the backbone to the belly on a sheep, and these tear when the hides are stretched during processing,” he said.
“We are looking for sheep with none of this hard collagen but a soft, supple skin ideal for the fellmonger. The skin is always the thickest on the backbone and thinnest on the stomach.
“This sheep with a good skin doesn’t get flyblown, has more lambs, is easy to shear, and the wool is better to process.”
Mr Gordon said the financial imposition of the disposal fee on producers was an opportunity for the focus to shift to Merinos with exceptional skin and wool quality meeting customer specifications.
Mr Gordon advised producers to seek-out sheep with plain and supple skin to maximise skin quality premiums.
“If you have consistently even skin, all the wool follicles go down to the same depth and grow at the same speed. This is termed evenly seated follicles producing quality wool.
“With wrinkle, there is thick and thinner parts of skin leading to different depths of the follicles, impacting wool growth, tensile strength and processing ability.
“This knowledge would give commercial producers a marketing edge with their Merino sheep, and they can become preferred suppliers of quality skins.”
Superior Merino hide quality
SRS Genetics chairman Norm Smith said superior Merino hide quality was characterised by a loose supple skin without any sign of thickness and wrinkle.
“Merino skins have the added bonus of quality wool for the skin buyer. Merino producers are renowned for their wool quality but there has been a positive shift over the last 10 years to produce a more dual-purpose animal by lifting early growth rates through Australian Sheep Breeding Values and selection for muscle and fat traits,” he said.
“We want to breed a balanced and resilient animal – it does well in good seasons but when things get dry, we want an animal that can maintain its fertility and still produce an exceptional wool quality fleece at either a six or eight month shearing to give a wool income at a more regular interval.
“The Merino as a maternal mother gives crossbred producers the option of a good wool income as well as growth and muscling in the terminal offspring. A lot of our Merino studs have lifted fertility and conception rates, and are now focused on lamb survivability through to weaning by selecting for muscle, fat and early growth.”
With wool length and quality being major factors affecting skin value, Mr Smith said other ways of maximising skin value included using only a keyhole crutch, minimise shearing cuts, and avoiding the use of spray markers or raddles on sale lambs.
Dermatitis and fly damage can also reduce the value of the skin and Mr Smith said CSIRO research had shown thicker skins with wrinkle were more susceptible to fly strike and fleece rot.
“Fleece rot starts where the moisture is trapped at the bottom of a wrinkle. With the thinner, wrinkle free skin of a SRS Merino, the sheep dry out a lot quicker and are not as susceptible to that fleece rot, which is a pre-determinate of fly strike.”
Dust contamination, especially during drought conditions, can cause quality assurance issues in skins.
Mr Smith said the alignment and softness of the SRS wools resulted in little dust penetration along the backline.
Best practice guidelines recommend a small keyhole or bung crutch with no shearing over the tail for lambs prior to sale to maximise skin value.
Mr Smith said the incorrect use of branding fluid or paint, which requires scouring out, should be avoided during wool harvesting.”
Vaccination needles can impact hide value and vaccination should be behind the ear and not along the back, shoulder or inside hind leg.
“It is important to make sure we are vaccinating high on the neck and only under the skin and not into the muscle, so we are not damaging the carcase. Ensure we have good hygiene so as not to cause an infection,” Mr Smith said.
“Avoid using pigmented rams to give skin buyers a pure white or cream skin without black fibres to work with.”
Producers should be mindful of curfew times before trucking can minimise faecal staining on sale lambs and allow six weeks before slaughter to ensure a wool length of minimum of half inch or 12mm. Graze lambs in paddocks free of burrs and grass seed to prevent hide contamination or damage.
“It is important to strictly follow what the processors want – if they want the lambs to be 24 hours off feed before transport then make sure we do it, rather than running them straight out of the paddock onto a truck followed by a five-hour journey to the abattoir.”
Mr Smith said with international retailers and processors increasingly indicating their preference for non-mulesed wool, the ethical and sustainable SRS wools were a profitable option for sheep producers.