Small thoughts on Merino breeding, suint and wool

Peter Small, March 4, 2024

Sheep producer and former garment manufacturer Peter Small.

UNDER the leadership of Mark Bunge, Balmoral Breeders Sire Evaluation Committee chairman, a very successful field day was held on Friday 1 February commencing in the morning at John, Joan and Kym Lyons’ property, Warooka at Melville Forest.

The progeny from the 2023 lambing represented 21 different sires/studs on display in their respective sire groups, together with their production measurement figures.

In the afternoon, the field day shifted to Austral Park at Tarranlea, where Hamish Robertson had progeny from the 2022 drop from 21 sires on display.

At 83, I must admit quite ashamedly, this was my first ever sire evaluation field day and therefore I would, if I may, share with Sheep Central readers my observations. First of all, I must congratulate Hamish Robertson and the Lyons family on an outstanding presentation of the sheep. The condition of the sheep and the way they were displayed was a credit to all involved. I was particularly impressed at how tidy, orderly and well-laid out each property was; an outstanding contribution in itself to the promotion of the wool industry.

Each property has a two-year commitment to care of the trial sheep. This is an enormous contribution of resources toward the success of the project and the whole industry, I am sure, is most appreciative to the Lyons and Robertson families.

There were a few things I noted that were to me very interesting and I would like to share these with Sheep Central readers. Of the large crowd of obviously interested stud breeders and wool growers, very few got in the pens and looked at the sheep and their wool. Most were intent on the figures, not the animals. Then near the conclusion of the morning inspection at Warooka, a fascinating thing happened. As people were leaving it was discovered the sheep, through some human error, had been inadvertently placed in the wrong pens. The sheep in the pens did not match the displayed measurement figures. To me, this was, while embarrassing to the organisers, very revealing; something to contemplate. Are we giving too much attention to figures and taking our eye off the animal and what it is producing?

Of the 2023 drop on display, two things really showed up. The first was the amount of suint evident in the wool across all sires, yet in every pen I looked at you could find sheep, displaying excellent staple construction of deep crimping, discrete well aligned fibres. And these sheep were free of suint and evidence of fly strike.

At Austral Park, the sheep displayed were a year older. Several people commented to me they thought that while they came from 21 different sires the sheep were so even that if “boxed” together you would have a flock of sheep that any wool grower would be proud to have in their front paddock.

After the inspection of sheep concluded, Mark Bunge introduced one of the two guest speakers; Australian Merino Sire Evaluation Association executive officer Ben Swain, who is responsible for coordinating the various sire evaluation programs across Australia. Ben went through a lot of data relating to the program and near the end alluded to the next stage of developing data on fly strike resistance. I wondered if this was a way to attract more funding to keep the project rolling?

Have we forgotten that it was Harold B Carter, a young veterinary science graduate of Sydney University of the late 1930s who was given the job by Australian Estates Pty Ltd go discover why some of the sheep on some of their pastoral properties in NSW were very subject to fly strike and not on others. By 1943, Carter understood that the answer lay in the skin of the sheep and this became his life-long passion. Carter and then others at CSIRO, particularly Jackson, Maddox, Lax and Moore, proved the answer lay in the ratio of suint to wax glands and primary to secondary fibre follicle formation in the sheep’s skin. All of the sheep I inspected at the field day that displayed these characteristics were free of suint and had less dust penetration of the staple tip and showed no evidence of fly strike. These are the uncomplicated sheep with plain bodies that are simplest to move to non-mulesed status.

Robert Herrmann was then introduced by Balmoral Breeders chair, Mark Bunge. Robert of course came from Hamilton and is well known in the district. Robert gave an excellently prepared address that deserves publication in full. As well as his many other fine endeavours, Robert has recently been appointed executive director of the National Council of Wool Selling Brokers of Australia following the retirement of the prominent wool industry analyst Chris Wilcox.

Robert in his address cited the Birchip Cropping Group (BCG) as the sort of body the wool industry needed as a champion of the industry, to extend new cutting edge science to wool growers, and enthuse their engagement and commitment to wool. Robert detailed all the credentials of wool as a textile fibre and then went on to explain how extensive financial data indicated that over the longer period, a well-run, productive, self-replacing Merino operation was at least equal in profitability to all other competing land uses, -prime lambs, cattle and cropping, yet wool production was continuing on its decline.

As Robert was speaking, I was reflecting on the fact that both the BCG and WRIST (now RIST) evolved at the same time under similar circumstances and both championed by two Birchip boys both of the 1940’s drop. Is it time to put the W (wool) back into RIST? Certainly the Jim Watt’s workshops that WRIST conducted across Australia some 30 years ago is still having a profound impact on the Australian wool clip – as evidenced in the display boxes of any current Australian wool selling auction.

Peter Small


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  1. Ricardo Fenton, March 8, 2024

    Thanks for this article Peter, and bringing the work of Harold B. Carter, and the CSIRO, team of Jackson, Maddox, Lax and Moore and the work of Jim Watts that brought all this knowledge together in the WRIST workshops I attended in 1996 and 1998.

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