Sandra Taylor

Farmers looking to fine-up their strong wool clip need to take a considered approach about how they go about it.

North Canterbury stud breeders Mark and Ian Stevenson, who breed halfbred, quarterbred and Merino rams, say they are seeing an increase in interest from commercial farmers looking to capitalise on strong returns for mid-micron and fine wool, particularly targeting mid-micron contracts such as Smartwool.

Ian says in a climate of market and political volatility, price stabilisation and the security offered through contracts is very appealing and something farmers can bank on.

While there is a lot of opportunity to increase wool revenue by introducing fine-wool genetics into a crossbred flock, it is not as simple as using a very fine-wool Merino ram and hoping the progeny will be somewhere in the middle.

They say farmers need to be very clear about what they are trying to achieve. For example, they may be putting a Merino ram over crossbred ewes to produce a higher-value trade lamb or transitioning a crossbred flock to a fine wool flock.

Mark says crossbred wool growers need to understand how good their wool is before they even start trying to fine it down.

There is a lot of difference between 35 and 39 micron and there may also be on-going issues with factors such as colour and quality.

“You need to have someone with the right skills to go through the crossbred wool objectively and select the ewes that would be suitable to breed from.”

A ewe with poor fleece structure, for example, could breed progeny whose fleeces become flytraps.

Similarly, using the wrong fine-wool ram could see the commercial breeder unnecessarily compromising on productivity, durability and constitution.

Ian recommends crossbred farmers take a two-step approach to breeding toward a fine-wool flock and instead of buying Merino rams, they buy quarterbred rams so that they are maintaining carcase attributes and reproductive performance while still producing a finer fleece.

“You are better to go through two steps than one and even in the transition phase, you are still better-off wool-wise with a 26-micron fleece than a 45-micron fleece.”

Feet need to be taken into account when selecting fine wool rams. Mark recommends sourcing rams from a stud with a history of selectively breeding for footrot resistance, while still considering breeding values for carcase attributes such as intramuscular fat and eye muscle area.

“These are good indicators of the durability of the sheep.”

Mark says reproductive performance in fine-wool sheep can be as good as crossbred. They have commercial clients with halfbred and quarterbred flocks that are scanning 170-180% and tailing over 140%.

From a feed efficiency point of view, if a fine wool ewe does lose a lamb, she still produces a valuable fleece of wool, which is not the case with strong wool sheep.

Another option for farmers trying to increase returns for their wool – and their lambs – is to use a Merino ram over their hoggets.

This reduces the risk of dystocia, enhances lamb survival and the resulting lambs will produce a higher-value fleece.

The wool will pay for the grazing over winter then the lambs can be sold prime at a premium in late winter or early spring.

Mark suggests crossbred breeders who are looking at introducing fine wool genetics to increase the value of their wool clip- or their lambs should seek out stud breeders who will help them from the outset. This may include helping select the crossbred ewes with which to begin the breeding process, and on-going support and advice.

He says there are opportunists out there selling first-cross rams without any breeding or selection history and he cautioned against using these rams in a breeding programme aimed at fining up the wool clip.