Sharl Liebergreen

I was drawn to the following quote recently – “I am doing the best I can, with what I have in this moment, but I’m going to need more yarn”. It’s a knitting quote, of course, and fits to some degree with my thinking about the state of wool production.

Wool production has been a mainstay of New Zealand’s GDP, but as we are all aware it has languished in more recent times. Farmers have ‘done their best’ with what they have had, but the industry has repeatedly required more input. A number of initiatives have revived interest and offered hope, but the wool cheque is still too mediocre. Ultimately, a good product has been superseded and substituted with alternatives and wool just hasn’t been able to keep up.

That brings me to the ‘yarn’. I remember fondly the luxurious carpet ads on TV and how that influenced many relatives and friends to put good ole Axminster carpet on their floors. Marketing is fundamental to everything we produce in NZ. Taste Pure Nature is the tagline that reminds our markets of the high quality of our red meat, but to be honest I don’t know what the equivalent tagline is for wool. But then again, we did drop the levy on wool in 2010 and with that went the impetus to market wool aggressively throughout the world.

“Silver bullets generally don’t exist and the last
thing we want is a backfire.”

There are, however, some spectacular success stories. Allbirds shoes and the tireless efforts of NZ Merino come to mind. So, what is it that makes the difference? Many things I’m sure, but these successes are in the fine wool arena only, and don’t utilise the standard strong product that comes off the average mixed-age Romney ewe.

So, is that the answer? Do we launch ourselves at gene-editing technology and generate rams that produce lambs who have the ability to grow a 24-28 micron fleece as an adult? Hmmm, I doubt it. Silver bullets generally don’t exist and the last thing we want is a backfire. Wool is a fantastic natural product that deserves more thought than that. It’s not easy creating an industry – just ask Allbirds or NZ Merino.

So, I suggest we need to fine up the national wool clip, but not all of the wool clip. I am sure there are still lines of coarser wool destined for quality carpets on the floors of many fine apartments around the world, but generally, carpets are not the future market for most of our clip. So how do we do it? How do we make the average fleece finer than it is now?

Upstream genetics will play a role, as they have in the past. There are a number of things we can do to support the efforts of breeders and their farmers who still believe in the potential of wool. Of the 383 dual purpose sheep breeders in NZ, 225 continue to record wool data. 153 of these breeders are ‘connected’ for wool traits as well, which means farmers can compare the genetics figures for wool from one breeder against another.

Connectedness is really important if we are to make speedy gains in the quality of wool. Farmers who want to chase the potential of a higher return from a finer clip need to be able to rely on solid data and discerning benchmarking information that will help them identify breeders who have objectives similar to theirs.

Another factor that will determine the speed with which we can genetically advance a finer fleece is the heritability of wool traits. Fortunately, they are quite high at about 40-50%. This means a significant proportion of what breeders ‘see’ in the fleeces of their breeding ewes and rams will be passed on to commercial farmers to also exploit. Rams that commercial farmers buy can carry the genes for a finer fleece, without compromising other economically important factors such as reproduction and growth.

“Great” I hear you saying. “We have a market that requires finer wool. We have breeders who are breeding for it and we are working with a trait which is heritable. Let’s get cracking!” Just one thing is missing. Yes, we have breeders selecting for wool, but they are selecting for wool weight or the quantity of wool, not the quality of wool. This means we are continuing to make genetic gain in wool, but the gains are in the type of wool that the market is saying they really don’t want. The market is using price (as their voice) to tell us where to put selection pressure, but breeders don’t have the tools to generate the product that the market wants. Well, that’s not entirely true …

About 80% of sheep currently in NZ are not fine wool breeds. They are Romney derivative and tend to produce stronger/coarser wool. Breeders who supply rams to this market are asked by Beef + Lamb NZ Genetics (BLG) to include in the production and marketing of their rams two standard selection indexes – NZ Maternal Worth and NZ Terminal Worth. NZ Maternal Worth (NZMW) is the standard index that incorporates the economics for wool production and yes, you guessed it, stronger/coarser wool quantity production. There is another index called Mid Micron that has a focus on wool quality, but it is not used widely despite containing some useful wool factors.

If we really want to make gains in wool quality, it has to be simple for sheep breeders who use NZMW to incorporate wool quality into their objective without having to make significant changes. Bolting-on a sub-index for wool quality, similarly to the way other traits such as meat or health traits are already bolted on, would seem a simple solution. Fortunately moves are underway to do just this.

In 2018, Dr Cheryl Quinton of AbacusBio and Sharon McIntyre of Sheep Improvement Ltd presented to the Sheep Breeder Forum in Dunedin, held by BLG. A new sub-index for wool quality traits was presented to sheep breeders, who were asked for their thoughts and suggestions about including it in their breeding objectives. The response was positive, but I can’t help feeling if the same meeting was held again today, the response would be even more positive, and urgent.

Nailing down the factors of wool quality that make an economic difference, to micron and colour only, sounds sensible. Staple length might also need consideration, but essentially white, finer wool will make a difference. Designing a simple pipeline of data-recording requirements for sheep breeders to follow can support change in the quality of the national wool clip. Along with all the other innovations in production, manufacturing and marketing, genetics can have a significant role to play in putting more money in the pockets of farmers of wool. Let’s get on with it.