Wool

24.05.17

Australia is the world’s largest wool exporter and wool production has been an important part of the Australian economy for 200 years. Much of Australia’s reputation as a high quality wool producer is due to years of selective breeding, which has led to the Australian Merino developing and adapting to the specific conditions of the country.

Overview

Wool is a natural fibre with unique qualities. It is a breathable yet insulating fabric, it has fire retardant qualities, and with some processing, it can be a shrink resistant fabric. Wool is used in a wide range of clothing items from under garments to luxury jackets. Specific types of wool can also be used for the manufacture of carpets, bedding and quilts.

Wool producing enterprises can range from a small parcel of land with a few sheep, to very large pastoral properties with tens of thousands of sheep. Wool production may be the key focus of the farming business, or it may be part of a mixed farming system, most typically a sheep–wheat farming system. Sheep, and different breeds of sheep, are suited to many regions of Australia.

There are around 70 million sheep in Australia, producing an average of 4.6kg of wool per head, and a total wool yield of 340 million kilograms greasy (shorn wool prior to treatment). The value of wool produced in Australia averages AU$3 billion dollars.

Facts and figures

  • Wool is produced in all states and territories of Australia, except for the Northern Territory, where sheep can only enter under permit
  • Australia has approximately 70 million sheep in Australia – 27 million in New South Wales, 13.8 million in Victoria, 14.2 million in Western Australia, 11.1 million in South Australia and 2.1 in Tasmania
  • Purebred Merinos make up 51.1% of the national sheep flock, 23.6% are Merino type, 13.8% First cross (Merino), 3.5% are dual purpose breeds, such as Corriedale and Border Leicester with the remainder being other breeds
  • The major markets for Australia’s AU$3 billion in exports (by value) were China, India and Italy

Production status

There are approximately 70 million sheep in Australia, producing an average of 4.6kg of wool per head, and a total wool yield of 340 million kilograms greasy. Sheep numbers and wool production have generally been in steady decline since the late 1980s. For example in 1991–92, there were approximately 163 million sheep shorn and they produced 801 million kilograms of greasy wool.

Uses

Wool has been harvested from sheep and used to make garments for over 10,000 years. Through the ages, breeding, technology and innovation have seen heavy, uneven woollen yarn transform to very fine yarn; and with that change, the use for wool as a protective outer garment has evolved to a very wide range of uses, including using very fine woollen fabric in garments designed for astronauts and elite athletes.

Australian wool is generally used to produce woven cloth for clothing and furnishings, knitting yarn and carpets. Australia’s competitive advantage in world wool production is in the production of apparel/fine wool used to produce clothing, with a reported share of 40% of the world’s wool apparel.

The wool must have certain attributes to be designated for one use or another, and these relate to the attributes of the fleece (especially fibre diameter), greatly influenced by the breed or genetics of the sheep, and to some extent by the production environment.

Wool type Fibre diameter (micron) Typical end use
Ultrafine Merino fleece < 16.5 Used to make very high quality, soft handling fabric, used by luxury designers and tailors
Superfine Merino fleece 16.6–18.5 Used to produce fabric for fine men’s and women’s apparel lines
Fine, medium and coarse Merino fleece 18.5 – 24.5 The ‘commodity product’, used for woven apparel fabrics, knitting yarns and furnishings
Coarse crossbred fleece 25–32 Used for knitwear, woven apparel fabrics, knitting yarns and furnishings
Coarse downs fleece 28–36 Used for bedding and quilting
Coarse carpet fleece 33–40 Used for woollen and wool blend carpet

Production Requirements

Growing regions

Most wool in Australia is grown west of the Great Dividing Range in the eastern states; in most of the agricultural and pastoral lands of South Australia and Western Australia; and in the north east of Tasmania. The industry is an integral part of the enterprise mix across the pastoral, wheat and high rainfall zones of the country.

There is very little wool produced in the northern part of Australia as sheep are not suited to the environment (e.g. the wet tropical coastal zones, and the wet/dry tropics in both the east and west of the country, sub-humid subtropical slopes and plains). Sheep are prohibited in the Northern Territory, except with the express permission of the Chief Inspector of Livestock. Sheep are susceptible to the notifiable disease bluetongueand any cases of the disease could jeopardise the export of cattle and sheep from northern Australia.

Climate

Wool is produced in many climatic zones of Australia, with the exception of the wet tropical coastal zones, the wet/dry tropics in both the east and west of the country, and the sub-humid subtropical slopes and plains.

Housing

For the majority of wool-producing sheep in Australia, the stock live in paddocks. A very small number of wool producers keep some animals in sheds, with the objective of producing very high quality, ultra-fine Merino wool. There are Animal Welfare Standards and Guidelines for Sheep.

Feed requirements

Pasture is the cheapest source of feed for all grazing-based livestock enterprises, including sheep grown for wool production. Sheep will eat a wide variety of pasture species from improved pastures containing legumes (generally subterranean clover) and annual or perennial grasses developed for grazing enterprises through to native pastures and forage shrubs (such as saltbush).

In Australia, the carrying capacity and potential productivity of a given farm or area of grazing land is often expressed as DSE – Dry Sheep Equivalent. DSE is a standard unit used to compare the carrying capacity of the land based on feed requirements of different classes of stock. The unit represents the amount of feed required by a two year old, 50kg (some sources state 45kg) Merino sheep (wether or non-lactating, non-pregnant ewe) to maintain its weight. One DSE is equivalent to 7.60 mega joule (MJ) per day. Determining the DSE for a given paddock for the class of stock will assist with understanding how many sheep can be sustained on your land.

At times of the growing season pasture may not meet the feed requirements of the flock, e.g. late summer or mid-winter, and supplementary feed such as conserved fodder, lupins, cereal grain or formulated feed pellets may be needed. Supplementary nutrition (especially for minerals) may also be supplied with ‘licks’ and ‘blocks’.

With diligent pasture management and attention to stocking rates, sheep can be provided with the nutrition they require at the right stages of growth and reproductive cycles. More information about pasture production systems and sheep nutrition is available on the Australian Wool Innovation website. The Making More from Sheep best practice management package also provides links to information and tools on pasture production and grazing management.

Reliable water sources are essential in all paddocks where sheep are grazed. While sheep do better when supplied with good quality water, adult dry sheep can tolerate some level of dissolved salts in the water, but less than 5,000ppm is recommended. Australian Wool Innovation Limited’s Stock Water: A Limited Resource, provides a good summary of water quality and quantity recommendations for stock.

Breeds and breeding

The main breed of sheep farmed for wool production is the Merino. After more than 200 years of selection and breeding there is a wide variety of bloodlines or strains of Merino available, differing in many characteristics including frame size, wool yield, fineness of wool and ability to thrive in different environments. The four basic strains of Merino in Australia are Peppin, South Australian, Saxon and Spanish. About 70% of Australian Merinos are Peppin Merinos, descended from the stud established by the Peppin brothers, in the New South Wales Riverina, in 1861.

The Australian Wool Innovation and Meat & Livestock Australia survey reported that 55% of the national sheep flock was pure bred Merino, a further 18% merino type and 11% first cross Merino’s.

A very small proportion of wool producing sheep are British breeds, such as Drysdale, Lincoln and Tukidale that produce long-stapled wool used for carpet production. The Corriedale, Border Leister, Romney and Cheviot are amongst many dual purpose breeds, producing both meat and wool, making up 1% of the national sheep flock. Their wool is considerably coarser than Merino wool. The considerable proportion of the sheep flock that are first-cross Merinos form the maternal component of prime lamb production.

There are many other pure breeds of sheep that are grown for prime lamb production, and their wool is not of a premium grade, such as Border Leister, Poll Dorset and Suffolk and some breeds such as Dorper, Wiltshire Horn, Wiltipoll and Damara and crosses that self-shed their fleece.

Wool producers generally have self-replacing flocks where the rams (sires) are carefully selected on-farm or bought from a ram breeder to breed the most productive progeny. Breeding programs may also involve artificial insemination and embryo transfer if very specific or superior genetics are sought. Good animal husbandry and pasture management for rams and ewes will have a significant influence on successful conception and lambing rates.

Detailed information about sheep breeding and links to sites providing information on genetic benchmarking, performance and selection is provided by Australian Wool Innovation and Meat & Livestock Australia.

Sourcing stock

Sheep are readily purchased through livestock agents or farm and stud sales. If inexperienced in purchasing sheep, the services of a stock agent, private consultant or someone with experience will be invaluable in terms of assessing prospective stock for health and performance in the local district.

There are many programs in place to help with the selection of new stock, and rams in particular, to ensure that quality genetics are being purchased and new stock will make ongoing productivity gains to a flock. There are many sheep breed associations that provide details of stud breeders with stock for sale. Once a flock nucleus has been established, new genetics may be introduced to the flock through regular purchase of new rams, or the use of artificial breeding technologies.

Health care & pests and diseases

Along with balanced and efficient feeding practices, a proactive health care program is essential for a profitable sheep enterprise. A basic parasite and disease control program should be established for the prevention and/or minimisation of worms, flies, lice and clostridial diseases like pulpy kidney. While a health program will require actions throughout the year, these generally can be timed to coincide with other husbandry operations such as crutching, weaning or shearing. There are a wide range of information and tools available to minimise any impacts of flystrike, lice and worms in sheep.

A disease of particular note is Ovine Johne’s disease (OJD) which is a significant and serious bacterial disease that leads to wasting and death of infected animals. A flock may be infected for several years before the disease is detected. The manure of infected animals hosts the OJD bacteria in high concentrations, and healthy sheep can pick up the infection from contaminated infrastructure, pasture, water and teats. The bacteria can survive for many months in shaded environments. There is a National OJD Management Plan 2013–18 to guide nationwide minimisation of spread and impact.

Follow biosecurity recommendations when buying sheep or moving sheep around different properties to minimise the risk of introducing parasites and diseases. When buying sheep, insist the vendor provides a National Sheep Health Statement, a declaration of animal health status for serious conditions such as ovine Johnes disease, footrot, lice and ovine brucellosis.

Predators such as wild dogs and wandering town dogs can also be a serious management issue as they attack and kill livestock. Some states, including New South Wales and Queensland have strategies in place for managing wild dog populations which also outline landholder responsibilities (see Risks/Challenges section).

More information about healthcare can be provided by livestock advisors and health product retailers. Most state departments of primary industries have information about healthcare on their websites (see Publications/information tab for links) and the website Making More from Sheep provides links to programs and tools to help wool growers keep their flocks healthy.

Infrastructure Requirements

The essential farm infrastructure required by a wool producer is fencing of paddocks to manage grazing and different mobs of sheep, and associated watering points. A central set of sheep yards and a shearing shed is required for managing stock at critical husbandry times, such as draftingdrenchingcrutching and shearing.

A permanent ramp is usually incorporated into sheep yards for loading sheep onto transport. Depending on the size of the property, portable sheep yards may be useful, as well. Laneways that service most paddocks on the farm save time in terms of travel for monitoring, feeding and moving stock.

A range of equipment makes key operations much easier in terms of labour and time, such as but not limited to crutching cradles, sheep handlers, livestock scales and drafters, jetting machines and mulesing platforms.

Depending on the size of the wool enterprise, it may be more economical to engage a contractor with this equipment at the times required.

The most significant infrastructure required for a wool production enterprise is a shearing shed. The shed is usually attached to the central sheep yards, and its design and size will depend on the size of the enterprise. For small sheep operations, it may be more economical to engage a contractor with a mobile shearing plant.

More information about sheep yard and shearing shed design is provided by Australian Wool Innovation, Shearing sheds & sheep yards, and the NSW Department of Primary Industries, Sheep yards and equipment.

Harvesting & Processing

Shearing is an annual operation that requires shearers and a qualified wool classer to be engaged. A good shearer can shear up to 200 sheep per day. Shed hands will be needed to move sheep from the sheep yards into holding pens and out of the yards once shorn. Wool handlers collect the shorn fleeces, and clean and skirt the fleeces in preparation for classing. The fleece should be classed by a registered woolclasser and will be classed according to line, breed and wool category.

There are many selling options for wool producers and the suitability of each will depend on the scale of the sheep enterprise and the type of wool being produced. About 85% of wool growers sell wool through the ‘open cry’ auction system that operates from major selling centres at Sydney, Melbourne and Perth. Other selling options include farm-gate sales to a buyer (private treaty), forward selling, electronic marketing and sales direct to a processor or exporter.

Markets & Marketing

Australia is the world’s largest exporter of wool. China is Australia’s most significant customer for greasy wool and the world’s largest importer of wool.

In the mid-1990s about 20% of Australia’s greasy wool went to China, but this has grown to well over 70%. China has become a leading processer of wool and the processing sectors of Australia’s traditional markets, such as Western Europe and Japan, have shifted to China, as has much of the Australian processing sector. Australia’s traditional wool markets of Italy, the Czech Republic, India, Japan, and Korea remain important export markets.

Most wool producers do not sell their product directly to the end user. It is generally sold at open-cry auction which are operated by wool brokers and where wool exporters buy wool in large volumes for their manufacturing customers or trading purposes. Most wool growers engage the services of a wool broker or private treaty merchant to assist in the sale of wool.

On some occasions, wool producers who aim to produce very specific fleece qualities may sell directly to processors. Consistency of quality and supply, as well as scale are important considerations if aiming for this market.

The Woolmark Company provides extensive information about the wool industry and marketing programs.

Risks & Regulations

Risks/challenges

As with all agricultural pursuits, risk is inherent in wool production and can include:

  • Adverse seasonal conditions
  • Expensive stock and/or highly variable wool prices
  • Lack of return on the capital invested – land, equipment and infrastructure
  • Disease and/or parasite burdens resulting in lower production or stock losses
  • Predators

New entrants to the enterprise should seek advice from an advisor or livestock officer before making significant business decisions.

The Making More from Sheep program provides excellent detail about planning a wool enterprise and assessing risk.

Ovine Johne’s disease (OJD) is a significant and serious bacterial disease that leads to wasting and death of infected animals. A flock may be infected for several years before the disease is detected. There is a National OJD Management Plan 2013–18 to guide nationwide minimisation of spread and impact. All vendors should provide a Sheep Health Statement to declare the sold stock is free of OJD.

If establishing a sheep enterprise on newly purchased land, gain a good understanding of paddock histories from the previous owner or regional livestock advisors. The manure of infected animals hosts the OJD bacteria in high concentrations, and healthy sheep can pick up the infection from contaminated pasture, water and teats. The bacteria can survive for many months in shaded environments.

Wild dogs are an increasingly serious problem for sheep producers, especially in central and outback Queensland, and the pastoral regions of Western Australia. Many state departments have strategies to control wild dogs, which also explain the obligations of landholders when implementing control measures, e.g. NSW Wild Dog Management Strategy and the Queensland Wild Dog Control Guide.

Regulatory considerations

If stock are to be sold at saleyards, to an abattoir or directly to another property, each animal must be registered with the National Livestock Identification System and ear-tagged, so it can easily be traced to the property or properties on which they have lived. The tags are used in conjunction with the Sheep/Goat Electronic National Vendor Declaration (or other approved movement documents).

There are Australian Animal Welfare Standards and Guidelines for the Land Transport of Livestock, which are regulated in law by state and territory governments.

For 35 years, the welfare of livestock in Australia was supported by a series of Model Codes of Practice for the Welfare of Animals. Community values and expectations changed, and our international trading partners placed greater emphasis on livestock welfare. A review of the Model Codes of Practice (MCOP) in 2005 recommended they be converted into Australian Animal Welfare Standards and Guidelines.

Visit the Australian Animal Welfare Standards and Guidelines website for more information on a wider range of welfare issues regarding sheep.

Publications

Publications/information

The Australian Wool Market—An introduction for prospective participants Australian Wool Exchange

Making More From Sheep Australian Wool Innovation & Meat and Livestock Australia

Sheep Connect Tasmania Australian Wool Innovation and the Tasmanian Institute of Agriculture

Sheep Biosecurity Department of Primary Industries, Parks, Water and Environment, Tasmania.

Sheep Agriculture Victoria

Sheep Department of Primary Industries, New South Wales

Sheep Industry Department of Agriculture and Fisheries, Queensland

Sheep Industry Fund Primary Industries and Regions South Australia

Sheep Department of Primary Industries and Regional Development: Agriculture and Food, Western Australia

Using DSEs and carrying capacities to compare sheep enterprises Department of Primary Industries, New South Wales

Water requirements for sheep, NSW DPI, Jan 2007

Sheep – the simple guide to making more money with less work Making More from Sheep, A joint initiative of Australian Wool Innovation and Meat & Livestock Australia

Other resources

Sheep breeds The Australian Stud Sheep Breeders Association

The Woolmark Company is a subsidiary of Australian Wool Innovation Limited, a not-for-profit company owned by more than 25,000 Australian woolgrowers.

Market Intelligence The Woolmark Company

AWI Grower Networks

Image Gallery

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Sheep ready for shearing (source The Woolmark Company)

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Shearing a sheep

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Fleece pulling (source The Woolmark Company)