The “Go Finer” project is being developed by Romney New Zealand (Romney NZ) in conjunction with Lincoln University, Pastoral Measurements Ltd and Wool Equities.
The project, with a proposal to incorporate Perendale and Corriedale mid-micron growers, is designed to grow a finer fleece of 30-32 micron wool for an ambitious cloth-making plan that will see the yarn woven into blankets and outdoor wear.
Romney NZ president Hugh Taylor said farmers were tired of waiting for the carpet industry to sort itself.
“We are actively moving to create change for ourselves. What we are doing will likely drop the fleece weight a little but once this project reaches full potential we will double our wool income,” Taylor said.
Over the past two years 1200 ewes on Taylor’s property at Oxford, North Canterbury, have been tested for micron, curve (crimp) and bulk using Pastoral Measurements technology. All individual animals were side-sampled on farm, including the ram hoggets.
The variation proved surprising in both micron and curvature. “When we first started we were coming up with anything from 34 to 53 micron. That was quite a surprise. I thought the flock would have been close to an average of 38 so it’s been interesting from the word go.”
Getting finer would take time, it would be a huge challenge, but Taylor was confident it was doable. Romney NZ had identified the first fine Romneys and the aim now was to get the wool down to 30 micron with high curvature.
“We are on the way to putting a breeding programme in place. It will take five plus generations to get close but the challenge is there.”
Pastoral Measurements technology was key to the project allowing the breeder to identify the ewes at the finer end of the flock and in turn identify the sire required over those selected ewes.
“We have been chasing wool weights all this time but in going finer we will have more choice of avenues for our wool and the reality is we can double the income.”
Farmers with wool of 36 to 38 microns making a greasy price of $3/kg could make $6/kg if they reduced the micron levels of their finest sheep.
The selected wool would be manufactured into cloth at the Bruce Woollen Mill in Milton, Otago, and at a mill in Palmerston North. Wool Equities, a co-operative of 9500 wool-growing farmers, gained a majority stake in the Bruce Woollen Mill in April and just last month obtained a weaving plant in Palmerston North.
The Milton operation will manufacture the yarn from mid-micron suppliers in the meantime until finer Romney and Perendale wool is produced.
The Go Finer project would draw on expertise from the United States. “We will look at bringing in an expert from the US who can design a new range from the material we plan to make and then sell to the States,” Taylor said.
The project was still in its infancy beginning initially with 10 farmers from each breed society. Lincoln University scientist Jon Hickford is overseeing the project.
The proposal was a complement to current moves to increase productivity of fine wool sheep. “Although the wool traits we plan to breed for in Romney are highly heritable, as opposed to the low heritability of pre-production and growth traits that would need to be dramatically improved to increase the economic viability of farming the fine-wool sheep, Hickford said.
The core of the project involved progressive on-farm wool testing for both curvature and mean fibre diameter (MFD) and the tagging of a proportion of two-tooth replacements each year as wool ewes. A specialised wool selection index would be created for ram breeders.
There would be some financial input required from farmers but the benefits should outweigh any direct costs in the longer term, Hickford said.