Pulling the wool

A combination of low wool prices and drench resistance is encouraging growing numbers of sheep farmers to switch to shedding breeds. Sandra Taylor reports.                  

In Livestock13 Minutes
Tim Mehrtens with a Wiltshire ewe in the throes of shedding.

A combination of low wool prices and drench resistance is encouraging growing numbers of sheep farmers to switch to shedding breeds. Sandra Taylor reports.                  

Continuing poor returns for crossbred wool coupled with the emergence of triple drench resistance is driving an increasing number of farmers to consider a shift to low-input shedding sheep.

Veterinary consultant Trevor Cook says he is seeing an increasing number of his clients moving away from wool production, but he believes the sheep industry is yet to realise there is a major train wreck coming its way with drenches failing.

“It means farms have to change systems or change to sheep that don’t need drenching.”  

Trevor hypothesises that there is an association with wool production and susceptibility to internal parasites as there appears to be no production costs associated with worm burdens in shedding sheep.

Most of the world’s sheep breeds are hair sheep, he points out,  it is humans that have, over centuries, bred some sheep for wool production. 

Farmers who have started towards shedding sheep are reporting these sheep require fewer drenches, although Trevor stresses that the biggest factor affecting sheep performance is the way they are fed. 

Shedding costs

While no-one disputes wool’s outstanding qualities, its production is coming at a cost many farmers are no longer prepared to bear.

Once considered the sheep of choice for alternative lifestylers, genetics such Wiltshires are finding a place on large-scale commercial farms.

Aside from shearing, the costs of crutching, dagging and flystrike are all eliminated with shedding sheep and these sheep have more resistance and resilience to internal parasites than their wooly counterparts.

For Waimate farmer Tim Mehrtens, the shift to Wiltshire genetics was driven by frustration with poor returns for wool, but he says if they don’t tick all the boxes in terms of production and profitability, he will go to an all cattle system.

Tim, who along with his partner Leah and daughters Elie and Briar, farms 215 hectares of rolling hill country running 1480 ewes alongside cattle. He has been running a solely terminal operation in that all lambs are sold prime and ewe lamb replacements are bought in.

Typically, he sells 50% of his lamb crop prime at weaning. Last year was an exception with an extended dry period forcing him to sell store lambs.

Tim admits he is taking a leap of faith with buying Wiltshires. While he has been buying very good composite ewe lambs, last year the difference between the wool cheque and shearing costs was $3500.

“It’s been going on for the 25 years I’ve been farming. Every year I think it’s going to get better, but in all that time, there was only one year that the price of wool went up and we got a decent wool cheque. Since then, it’s been a downhill race to the bottom.”

Even if the long-predicted renaissance for wool were to occur, Tim says shearer availability is becoming increasingly difficult and he suspects that in the not too distant future, our markets will no longer accept tail docking as a management practice. Wiltshires have shorter tails with no wool.

He had been thinking about making the shift to shedding sheep for three or four years and finally took the first step by buying 180 ewe lambs and rams at North Canterbury’s Mt Cass’s inaugural Wiltshire sale.

He had not intended to buy rams and went to the sale specifically to buy ewe lambs, however the prices for lambs were so strong, he decided the best option was to buy rams and a limited number of ewe lambs.

As well as eliminating the costs associated with wool production, Tim wants a low-input sheep that is able to perform with minimal drenching.

With the first crop of pure Wiltshire and Wiltshire cross lambs on the ground now, he says he has been pleasantly surprised at the pre-weaning growth rates and their mothering ability.

The hoggets ate noticeably less feed over winter – which was not what Tim was expecting – and he is pleased with their conformation and body type.

While they have a reputation for being a bit wild, Tim found they were very settled under a traditional strip grazing, feeding-out wintering routine and have been very good mothers – standing up to any dogs that venture too close.

He put 730 crossbred ewes to the Wiltshire rams which did make him nervous as it exceeded his 1: 100 ram to ewe ratio, but the ewes scanned a pleasing 175%.

So far, the lamb crop looks particularly uniform.

Tim admits he is reluctantly moving back to breeding replacements, so he will be comparing the lambs’ performance with his terminal lambs from a Poll Dorset Texel sire.

In late November, he couldn’t tell the difference between the maternal and terminal lambs.

“They’ve got me intrigued at the moment.”

He has had a small amount of scald in the terminal lambs – but none in the Wiltshires and he was looking forward to running the ewes and lambs over the scales at weaning.

“But so far so good.”

Ironically, Waikato farmer Kim Robinson was busy with shearing when Country-Wide talked to him about a move to no-shear sheep. All going well, the time taken up shearing will soon be a thing of the past.

Kim is the general manager of Lochiel Farmlands, a 3600ha mixed-terrain property near Glen Murray, carrying 42,000 stock units.

These are made up of 10,500 Coopworth ewes, 4000 hoggets and 3000 cattle which includes 550 Angus breeding cows.

Kim says he has always taken pride in his wool clip and wool production was part of his selection criteria, but two years ago at the main shearing they produced 257 bales of wool which was worth $67,000 including GST. The shearing bill came in at $87,000 GST inclusive, so they were out of pocket by $20,000.

Losses of this sort were just not sustainable.

What frustrates Kim is the money that has been wasted within the industry.

“Think about how much money the industry has spent marketing wool to get to $1.60-$1.80, which is what it was worth then.”

From a business point of view, it made no financial sense to continue producing wool and Kim decided to move to a shedding sheep.

Kim briefly considered Dorper, but ruled them out due to the Waikato’s wet climate.

“Dorpers just wouldn’t suit our country.”

Wiltshires were the obvious choice and Kim dipped his toe in the water two years ago by mating 500 five-year ewes to Wiltshires.

This year he went all out and put Wiltshires across Lochiel Farmland’s entire ewe flock.

“We started the process, but it will be slow.”

So far, he has been pleased with the outcome of that first cross, with some starting to shed already, which is a reflection of the strong heritability of that trait.

Facial Eczema can be a significant challenge to stock performance in the Waikato and Kim says last autumn was particularly bad. While Wiltshires have not had the years of tolerance testing that breeds such as Coopworths have had, Kim was pleasantly surprised at how many of the rams appeared to be inherently tolerant, although he did lose a couple.

Kim says the Wiltshires also handle worm burdens well, although they do still drench them.

“They seem to be pretty tough like that.”

By introducing Wiltshires, Kim does not want to be compromising on performance, so along with a group of other farmers , he is importing genetics from the United Kingdomto help improve the breed’s genetic base in this country.

Kim admits that as a breed, the Wiltshires can be a bit racy and test the shepherds’ patience, but ultimately, once established the breed should save the business a significant amount of money.

“Once in place we’ll be able to drop a labour unit, it will be like farming Angus cattle.”

 “I’m quite excited about it. 

“It is going to be slow progress and if it doesn’t work, we can always go back.”

 Making the move.

Veterinary consultant Trevor Cook says farmers transitioning to shedding sheep can make a lot of progress in five years.

There are two or three genes involved with shedding, so progress is fast and while the first cross sheep will still require shearing, there may be an opportunity to negotiate with the shearers as the clip is much smaller and quicker to shear, he says.

On average, by year four, the sheep won’t require shearing.

Cook recommends farmers looking to move to shedding sheep consider the following factors;

  1. Ram source: Look for a ram that has production records behind it.  While breeds such as Wiltshires don’t have 50 years of selection behind them, it is still important to ensure the ram does have production records and genetic selection is based on performance.
  2. Conformation. It is important that sires are structurally sound. This is often sacrificed in new breeds.
  3. Get a clear understanding of what the stud is selecting for, how they are selecting their ewe replacements, hogget mating performance, lamb growth rates and footrot tolerance. 
  4. Know that sheep like Wiltshires behave differently, particularly in the way they cope with worm burdens. The results of monitoring programmes, such as Faecal Egg Counts, will need to be interpreted differently.

Right from the first cross, the combination of genetics should see improvements in internal parasite management, lamb survival and longevity.

He says value the experience, not just the end result.