Shearing, dipping, crutching, dagging, docking and much of the mustering and yarding are things of the past on a King Country sheep farm. Russell Priest reports on a wool-less revolution. Photos: Brad Hanson.

No-wool sheep have delivered a 61% reduction in labour costs and a $256/ha increase in farm surplus compared to woolled sheep for King Country farmers Grant and Sandy McMillan. When wool prices dropped to $1.70/kg in 2005, the Ongarue couple reluctantly began to consider farming sheep without wool.

“We were farming dual-purpose, strong-wool sheep and focusing on meat production ’cos that’s where the money was. But the farming activities related to wool were seriously interfering with meat production,” Grant says.

Today that vision has been realised and Grant has no regrets. “There is a serious disconnect between strong crossbred wool and the consumer with it being forced out of the market by cheap and easy-care synthetics.”

He also feels a sense of guilt that if the concept of no-wool farming is adopted widely this will affect employment for those involved in the wool industry.

Grant’s life-changing decision in 2005 resulted in his buying three Wiltshire ram lambs in 2006 from Marton farmer John Morrison who at the time was farming the largest Wiltshire flock in New Zealand. John has been instrumental in keeping the Wiltshire breed going.

Grant chose Wiltshires because they are a specialised meat breed, have a history of some fleece shedding and have been in NZ longer than the only other shedding breed in the country, the Dorper.

“What a lot of people don’t realise is that not all Wiltshires shed so my challenge in achieving my vision has been to breed a shedding Wiltshire and that’s what I’ve been doing for the last 13 years.”

John didn’t share Grant’s vision but has developed his own easy-care breed using the Wiltshire to peel wool off the points, produce a higher percentage of A wool and reduce the cost of crutching and dagging.

Grant believes there was no point in producing a sheep with less wool because they still require shearing and producing less wool means there is less income to offset the costs associated with growing it.

“Most cockies only look at the shearing cost and the wool cheque however there are numerous costs associated with growing wool, some of which farmers may not have even considered.”

Grant’s list includes shearing, dipping, crutching, dagging, docking, labour involved in mustering sheep to perform all these jobs and losses associated with wool like flystrike, getting cast and drowning. There are also the significant production losses from having stock (particularly lambs) off pasture to perform these jobs.

“Either you remain serious about growing it and grow as much as possible or don’t grow any at all,” Grant says.

Only his Romney and Border Leicester Romney-cross hoggets were mated with the Wiltshire ram lambs in the first year of the programme. The mixed-age ewes were mated to top facial eczema (FE) tolerant Coopworth rams from Northland breeder David Hartle.

The McMillans wanted to take a cautious approach by farming a grading-up Coopworth flock alongside the grading-up Wiltshires and comparing their relative performance without fully committing themselves.

Results from the first cross were positive so the breeding programme continued with mating hoggets to speed up the grading-up process.

Dagging was eliminated after the first cross, however the intermediate crosses still required shearing and some fly control.

“Some farmers have stuck with the partially-shedding cross, but we wanted to get the full benefit of the shedding trait.”

The McMillans’ selection programme focuses on a commercially acceptable phenotype, early shedding enabling them to assess shedding ability and fibre length. Wiltshires will produce 10-70mm of fibre length and Grant wanted to exploit this variation by establishing which fibre length suited his farming environment. He now prefers those growing about 30mm of fibre. In 2008 Grant bought some Wiltshire rams from Wellsford’s David Arvidson.

He was impressed with the phenotype and soundness of his stock, their degree of tolerance to facial eczema and parasites, the use of Sheep Improvement Limited and other genetic technologies to genetically evaluate his flock and his breeding objectives. David has bred and recorded Wiltshires for 25 years with more of a focus on carcase conformation, performance and soundness than their ability to shed.

Since meeting Grant he has collaborated with him on this trait.

Grant now buys his rams exclusively from David, looking for a good phenotype and as much genetic diversity as he can get. He leaves the genetic selection to David.

Eight years of top-crossing with Wiltshire rams were required to achieve 100% shedding and now 13 years later, 95% of the lamb selection decisions Grant makes about shedding are correct. The crunch year for the McMillans was 2015 at which point half their flock had been bred to Wiltshire rams and half to Coopworths. With help from local farm consultant Geoff Burton the McMillans completed a comparative financial analysis of the two breeds based on the data collected over the previous 10 years but with particular emphasis on the last three.

Grant is emphatic that the comparison was not about breeds but about farming dual-purpose sheep producing strong crossbred wool verses sheep generating no-wool income. That comparison resulted in the Coopworths being gradually phased out and the Wiltshires filling the void.

Grant says the change suits their stage of life.

“Less time involved in sheep handling and stock work has taken the physicality out of the job which has meant we can keep doing what we love longer and have more time for other things.”

The pros of no-wool farming

No-wool sheep farming offers considerable savings in labour and other expenses, an analysis by respected Taumarunui farm consultant Geoff Burton shows.

Labour costs are reduced by 61% (232 hours annually) and costs involved in mustering, stock handling, shearing, crutching, dagging and fly and lice control have either been reduced or eliminated.

Few tasks in a no-wool farm business are time-critical and they can be carried out regardless of the weather. Outside contractors are no longer relied on to undertake wool-related jobs.

The McMillans have found animal health benefits include 50% fewer ewe deaths from a significant reduction in bearings and lambing problems, few if any production losses due to flystrike and lice, and no pelt damage related to shearing cuts. Not having to remove tails or castrate males at docking means no stress or growth check and no docking complications. Viral pneumonia has almost been eliminated as a result of less mustering and holding lambs in close proximity for significant periods in yards.

Faecal egg counting has been undertaken regularly on the farm since 2004 with animals only being drenched with a short-acting product when absolutely necessary.

Grant concedes production losses may occur as a result of this policy but believes it is a small price to pay to achieve sustainability. Animals never receive capsules or long-acting injectables and ewes are not drenched unless a worm challenge is life-threatening, for example, a Barbers Pole outbreak.

Their shedding Wiltshires required less drenching than their Coopworths, suggesting they may be more resilient. Grant is not sure whether this is a breed difference or a result of the selection pressure ram breeder David Arvidson has been applying to his flock.

Being in a closed valley makes the McMillans’ farm prone to facial eczema (FE) so in selecting his Coopworth rams (from 2004-2005) and Wiltshire rams (from 2006) FE resilience has been a high selection priority.

Grant found the production losses due to this disease higher in Coopworths than Wiltshires. Again the McMillans may be benefiting from Arvidson selection pressure.

Shedding Wiltshires don’t produce a significant amount of fibre (ewes average about 1kg), so surplus feed fed to ewes seems to improve their milk production and condition score.

Grant believes the latter makes his Wiltshires more resilient during times of a feed shortage. He found their scanning and lambing percentages to be significantly better than the Coopworths after three recent droughts. The Wiltshires are also slightly better in normal seasons.

“Once ewes lay down body condition it’s damn difficult to get it off which is not a bad thing in a ewe flock and means they don’t require flushing to achieve good percentages.”

Wiltshires are especially easy care at lambing. Lamb birth weights are relatively small resulting in few lambing problems and lambs are vigorous at birth making the breed ideal for hogget mating.

Grant says there was no significant difference between the two breeds in terms of lamb survival. Wiltshires do have a significantly thicker pelt than other breeds and lambs are born with some fibre.

Once the lambs shed their fibre their growth rates soar, presumably because they are channelling proportionally more feed into their carcases.

They don’t start growing fibre again until the autumn so there is a long period during which their intake is stimulated.

Not carrying any fibre over the hot summer months also means they spend more time eating than in the shade.

Grant has been able to achieve significantly better lamb carcase weights (1.5-2.0kg) from his Wiltshires. Average daily weight gains of single lambs from birth to weaning are 280g for ram lambs and 225g for ewe lambs. The average weaning weight of single ram lambs is 50kg.

The cons of no-wool farming

Most of the objections to no-wool farming seem to involve aesthetics. The perception of unsightly shedded fibre littering the farm and the scruffy appearance of sheep during the shedding process are myths, Grant says.

Last year during the peak of shedding, Grant had a drone fly over the hogget lambing block and says little shed wool was visible. When Grant was interviewed in early January, towards the end of the shedding cycle, the only wool observed was a small quantity on a fence line where lambing hoggets were rubbing.

The shed fibre is short and surprisingly brittle. It breaks up readily and is incorporated into the soil as fertiliser. Compare this with shorn wool which when sold essentially removes nutrients from the farm which ideally should be replaced (an added cost).

Without question, shedding sheep look scruffy when going through the shedding process, however once the fibre has gone they look magnificent, with no ridges or cuts on the pelt as would be seen on a poorly shorn sheep.

Grant accepts there will always be sceptics with any new farming concept. Many older farmers struggle with it whereas younger farmers are much more open.

Stock agents also show some bias, which simply reflects market perception but this is changing rapidly.

Some fly strike may occur in humid autumns however such cases are easy to treat. Wiltshires require a different approach to mustering than wool breeds. His advice is to take plenty of time and avoid excessive pressure. He’s found they respond more favourably to eye dogs than noisy huntaways.

Shedding cycle dictates lambing date

The McMillans’ flock is mated to lamb earlier than they would prefer, but it is necessary to allow them to select on the propensity to shed fibre.

“Lambing early means we don’t achieve as good a weaning percentage, however I’m prepared to wear that to be able to assess the lambs on shedding ability,” Grant says.

Normally ewes will take six to eight weeks to shed and lambs four to six weeks.

The process takes place in spring and early summer after which no fibre will be grown for 120 days before growth starts on their winter fibre.

Some lambs will undergo a partial shed. This means together with their winter fibre growth they will carry a partial double fleece through to the following spring when most will shed fully as two-tooths.

Because of this they tend to be the most untidy shedders.

The process of shedding appears to be influenced by genetics, increasing day length and feeding. Better feeding results in better shedding.

Mating in age groups begins for the McMillans’ 1600 ewes (including twotooths) in the first week of March for three cycles. Those taking the ram in the third cycle (foetal-age assessed at scanning) are lambed separately and at weaning either culled or go into a B flock. Scanning and weaning percentages are around 170 and 140 respectively. No selection pressure to date has been placed on fecundity/fertility as the primary focus has been on shedding ability and FE tolerance. Breeding to improve production is the next stage in Grant’s crusade.

Ewe hoggets go to the ram on May 1 for two cycles. Hoggets down to 36kg are mated as Grant believes if an animal is sexually mature at this weight it should be given an opportunity to prove itself.

From experience he knows the smaller hoggets (because they are not growing fibre) will almost attain similar pre-lambing weights to their heavier contemporaries and certainly grow faster than their woolly counterparts.

They must however be fed well to achieve this.

Eighty percent of the hoggets conceive, delivering 100% at weaning.

The average weight of his MA ewes is between 70-80kg at mating so Grant is looking to improve ewe efficiency by encouraging early maturity.

Ewes and hoggets are wintered and lambed in age groups, giving him an opportunity to assess sire performance for both the females and their progeny.

It also gives him smaller mobs to deal with when they are brought into the yards. This in turn means they are off grass for shorter periods, minimizing production losses.

While the best ewe and ram lambs are kept for breeding, culls are killed at Ovation Feilding plant at 19-21kg (above 37.5kg LW) giving a carcase yield of 47 to 50%.

Innovation at Ongarue

Grant (63) and Sandy (58) McMillan farm 365 hectares (350ha effective) at Ongarue, 28km north of Taumarunui in the central North Island. They have a daughter Sarah Nicholson (32) who is a land management officer with Horizons Regional Council and a son Jason (30) a fabricator and lifestyle farmer of horned Wiltshires near Masterton.

When Grant suggested no-wool farming to his father in 2004-5 he had difficulty grasping the concept of running sheep that didn’t have to be dagged, crutched and shorn. However to his credit he told Grant that if he thought he could make the idea work he should implement it.

“Unfortunately Dad died without seeing the end product and it’s sad in a way because I really appreciated his support even though he had difficulty with the concept.”

The McMillan farm is serviced by a 1.7km-long central race which is also a public road. Subdivided into 60 paddocks, it lies in a basin of deep pumice soil with a good balance of steep, medium and easy country. The hill country is stable and is the source of the farm’s gravity-fed water, supplying 75% of the paddocks with trough water.

This once regarded summer-safe farming area receives little wind and an annual rainfall of 1200-1400mm with most of it coming from the north or north west. Grass grows all year round.

Olsen phosphate levels are excellent at 20-35 while sulphur levels are satisfactory and optimum potash levels will never be reached because of severe leaching through the porous pumice soil.

Annual inputs are therefore required as are inputs of cobalt and selenium. These are applied in the spring mixed with a minimum quantity of superphosphate used as a carrier. A maintenance dressing of 200kg/ha of superphosphate is applied in the autumn.

The McMillans have been proactive in planting trees along fenced-off waterways and in waste areas not only to keep stock out but also to provide shelter and aesthetic appeal.

Most poplars have been grown in their own nursery while natives are externally sourced. Grant realises if this is not done voluntarily legislation may force them to do it in the future.

In 2006 at the Ballance Farm Environmental Awards the McMillans won the Horizon’s, Massey University Innovation Award for their work with Wiltshires and the WaterForce Integrated Management Award for the environmentally sympathetic way in which they developed their water supply.


Farm consultant Geoff Burton’s financial analysis (see table) compares actual data collected by the McMillans in the years up to 2015 while they were farming woolled and no-wool sheep.

He concluded the no-wool sheep policy delivered a $21,000 increase in farm surplus where lambs were slaughtered at the same weight of 16.5kg. However, the no-wool lambs are typically 1.5-2.0kg heavier at slaughter than the woolled lambs which lifted the farm surplus by more than $72,000 ($256/ha). Burton applied a net lamb schedule price of $7/kg in December and $6.50/kg thereafter. Ewe sale prices were $110 for scanned dry ewes and $95 for culled ewes. Ram prices were actuals at $1500 for the woolled rams and $2000 for the no-wool option. Shearing costs were $4.30/head and wool price was $2.50/kg for ewe hogget wool, $2/kg for second shear ewes, and $3.60/kg for lambs.

Animal health, shearing costs and deaths were actual numbers supplied by the McMillans.

Substantially reduced expenses, mostly the result of no handpiece work, and less labour, animal health and vehicle use also contributed to the gain in farm surplus, Burton found.

The no-wool sheep required 61% fewer man hours (232) for mustering and handling. For the woolled sheep option to match the financial performance of the no-wool sheep, the ewe wool price would have to rise by more than $5.50/kg to almost $8/kg.

He also noted that the benefits on the no-wool sheep’s heavier lamb weight had a positive impact on cashflow through December, typically when overdrafts are at their highest in a sheep-beef operation.

Burton made no allowance for no transfer of nutrients in wool out of the system when wool is sold off the farm. He also did not take into account any variation in carcase yield, longevity, animal health requirements or the capital and maintenance costs on buildings and yards between the two options.

The opportunity cost of the big saving in labour for the no-wool option was also not factored in. If costed at $27/hour, the benefit to the no-wool option of the 232 hours saved is $6264.


Grant believed that if he was going to share his vision successfully with commercial farmers his shedding Wiltshires had to gain their visual approval. So throughout his grading-up programme his culling on phenotype has been ruthless. Conformation, feet, jaws, no horns, shoulders, heads, leg structure; you name it he culled for it.

The litmus test came in the summer of 2018 when he exposed his product to the public in the Te Kuiti sale yards. A huge crowd turned out – in fact far larger than had been seen there since the heady days of the ewe fairs.

The McMillans put 500 shedding Wiltshire females up for sale (300 ewe lambs and 200 two-tooths) and 136 ram lambs. The result was a staggering average of $238 for the ewe lambs, $345 for the two-tooths and $385 for the ram lambs. Grant believes the result could have been even better had they been put up in smaller lots.

Last November 53 shedding Wiltshire two-tooth rams with no performance information were sold at the same venue for an average of $878. The McMillans were ecstatic at the level of interest shown in their stock.

This year’s late February sale of 680 mainly Wiltshire females saw them gross almost $267,000 to average $392. They sold 261 two-tooths for an average of $412, 370 ewe lambs at $355 and 49 ram lambs averaged $566.


  • Grant and Sandy McMillan.
  • Farm at Ongarue 28km north of Taumarunui.
  • 350ha effective hill country sheep and beef farm.
  • No-wool, low-cost, low-input farming.
  • Run their own breed of shedding Wiltshire sheep.
  • Sheep farming now a more leisurely occupation.
  • Run 100 Hereford Angus breeding cows as pasture groomers.

Stock numbers:

  • 1600 Wiltshire ewes including two-tooths.
  • 650-750 ewe hoggets.
  • 150 ram hoggets.
  • 20 MA sire rams.
  • 100 Hereford Friesian breeding cows.
  • 20 R2 in-calf Hereford Friesian heifers.
  • 6 bulls.