Getting the measure of poor fibres

"We can do better" is the message Professor Jon Hickford of Lincoln University wants sheep farmers to get about their wool.

In Business2 Minutes
Fine wool under an electron microscope as researchers study the relationship between measure, feel and what can be seen. There is a strong link between uniformity of fibres and the handle of wool.

“WE CAN DO BETTER” IS THE MESSAGE PROFESSOR Jon Hickford of Lincoln University wants sheep farmers to get about their wool.

Two recently completed BAgrSc honours students at Lincoln, Emma Owen and Laura McQuillan-Reese, can attest to that too.

The students measured the wool from hundreds of rising two-tooth ewes on farms across Canterbury and Otago, and their findings were surprising. Owen studied Corriedales and McQuillan Romneys. They found a lot of poor quality in the commercial flocks.

Often individual fleeces were highly medullated, excessively strong (very high fibre diameter), highly variable in fibre diameter, or lacking in fibre curvature. If those fleeces end up in bales with good wool, the value of the bale can be reduced.

Hickford understands medium and strong wool returns are poor.

“It certainly explains the shift to shedding sheep breeds, but as I teach the students, if you are going to do wool, then do it well.”

Poor wool would ultimately lead to poor quality products, and that started on farms.

Farmers should be proud of what they produce, try to improve it to where wool buyers offer a good price.

“Be a price-maker, not a price-taker…”

While focused on commercial farms the student projects also tested the sheep of selected stud breeders.

Hickford says some breeders are getting serious about improving wool quality and understand many of the key wool traits are highly heritable.

Buying superior maternal wool rams would not set farmers backwards in terms of key maternal lamb production traits like fertility, lamb survival and growth to weaning.

The research is ongoing, with Hickford having an interest in what improves wool handle, or its tactile properties, and what underpins the traits genetically.

“We are slowly but surely unpicking the 100-plus genes that underpin the structure of wool fibres.”