Monday, March 4, 2024

An industry that’s still living in the 1950s

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Not a lot has changed in the woolshed in the past seven or so decades, with little to no investment in research, development or education in wool, says David Scobie.
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By David Scobie, Lincoln University

In the 1950s, agriculture in New Zealand was interesting. A farmer might have towed a three-furrow plough behind a 35 horsepower “Fergy” tractor, possibly baled hay into small and what are now called “idiot bales” using a New Holland hay baler. 

If they were in cropping country, they more than likely bagged their grain into hand-sewn bags for lugging around.  

Milk was more than likely extracted in a herringbone shed, separated on the farm and carted in cream cans to the local factory and made into butter for export.  

Back then, the sheep stock unit of a 55kg ewe rearing a lamb was a benchmark.  

Allegedly wool was worth a pound per pound. It was harvested using a shearing handpiece designed in 1929 and using a shearing method developed and popularised by Godfrey and Ivan Bowen.  

The wool was pressed into bales and a cap was sewn into the pack.

In the 2020s you might see a tractor with an eight-furrow reversible plough behind a ridiculously powered John Deere tractor. 

Hay is stuffed into bales bigger than a 35 horsepower Fergy and grain is handled in bulk.  

Milk is harvested on a rotary platform, then it roars around the country in massive shiny tankers and gets dried into powder that could be blown into a single plastic bag inside a 40-foot container for export.  

There are robots milking cows in New Zealand today.  

Hoggets easily reach 55kg and rear a lamb and the stock unit is way out of date.  

Each year, and sometimes twice a year, the sheep get shorn using a handpiece designed in 1929, using the method developed by the Bowen brothers in the 1950s. 

There are between 600 and 800 injuries a year to shearers, but among that number are farmers and lifestyle block owners who think they know how to handle a handpiece and it costs the industry around $4 million annually. 

True, we now have slipping clutches in the down tube and overhead gear that could shut down in milliseconds for safety.  

Then the wool gets pressed into bales the same size as they were in 1950.  

We probably have a hydraulic press and oh – those revolutionary capless packs.  

The most novel thing in my shed is a rechargeable leaf blower to clean the boards between sheep.

I was born into farming wool, I completed a PhD on wool, I spent 30 years researching it.  

My team found a way to breed a sheep that was easier and faster to shear with less cut teats and less dags and flystrike.  

The majority of sheep farmers voted for no wool levy in 2009 and reinforced that in 2014.  

Subsequently, there has been little to no investment in research, development or education in wool on farm and what was invested off farm has been spent on various consultants and advisors, and the pocket linings of a cabal of somewhere between the self-interested and the well-meaning. 

With no wool levy I could never raise interest in bulk handling for wool in either the research institution I worked for nor in the industry that was cast and woven in the 1950s.  

Now I lecture to students at Lincoln University and advise them to breed sheep without wool because an industry that does not invest in itself is doomed.  

Without novel harvesting and handling methods, wool is headed the way of the cart horse, the 35 horsepower Fergy, the cream can and the idiot-size hay bales.

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