Monday, February 26, 2024

Are woolly hill country sheep still fit for purpose?

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Consultant questions whether the effort put into wool is worth the reward.
The national sheep flock continues to fall, reaching 25.3 million as at last June, but despite that, 22 million lambs were tailed in the 2021‒2022 year.
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Veterinarian and consultant Trevor Cook has questioned whether modern, woolly hill country sheep are suited to the environment they are farmed in.

Farmers are dagging, crutching, drenching and shearing these animals on the basis that if they do this work, they will get a good return, he told farmers at a Beef+ Lamb New Zealand (BLNZ) field day in North Waikato.

But that return has been very poor in recent years, he said.

“A lot of the sheep we have on hill country do not fit the environment we have got them in.

“If we want sustainable sheep, from a profitability point of view, from a chemical point of view, sheep have to be in this form where we don’t have to dag them, we don’t have to yard them – where we don’t have to do that stuff around wool.

“There’s a massive cost to that and we just put up with it. We have put up with it for a long time without getting a return on it and we can’t carry on.”

The field day was held at Lochiel Station at Glen Murray in North Waikato, and  looked at the future of wool.

Station manager Kim Robinson had switched breeds from Coopworth to the wool-shedding Wiltshire breed.

Cook said this change needed to be put in the context of a farmer wanting productive sheep that cost less to run and are more suited to the environment.

Farmers are also change-adverse despite it being years since farmers were properly paid for wool, he said.

“It’s a long time since we were paid enough for wool to cover the costs of what we have to do with sheep to keep them alive and productive because they have got wool.

“I don’t know of any other sector of society that lives on hope as much as farmers live on it.”

Farmers had also been burned in the past by poor composite breeds produced in the 1990s and having a poor previous experience with “horrible-looking” shedding sheep farmed by “people in green cardigans and sandals”, he said.

What has made it more challenging is that a lot of those maintenance costs have risen in recent years. 

“In my opinion in a lot of cases, the tools we are using are failing us and if we look ahead, they will absolutely fail us and we will not be able to keen using them.”

The focus has to be on sheep that cost less to produce while at the same time retaining the high-performing traits that already exist within the industry.

Cook said this is achievable through genetics.

BLNZ Genetics general manager Dan Brier agreed with Cook on the effect the low wool price is having on  farmers’ businesses.

“There’s no question that people have to look at their businesses and say, ‘What role is it playing?’”

He said BLNZ Genetics’ job is to make sure farmers have the right tools to do what they want when it comes to sheep selection.

“There are farmers who farm wool and still see it as an important part of their business and there are some who don’t.”

BLNZ Genetics ran a project to collate trait information around low input sheep, animals with shorter tails and clean breaches.

Farmers can use this to help select sheep for the future that are right for them, Brier said.

“I agree with Trevor. Sheep that will require less inputs are absolutely an important part of the future for us.”

Farmers are clever business people and are looking at different ways to achieve that. Some are choosing sheep with no wool, others are looking at marketing initiatives and some are looking at growing finer wool to lift its value. 

“There are a number of ways in which farmers are trying to deal with the crux of the problem, which is that wool isn’t worth very much. This wouldn’t be a conversation if wool was $10/kg.”

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