AUSTRALIA already has a solution to its shearing, flystrike and non-mulesed wool production issues, according to the SRS Merino fraternity and its supporters.
SRS Genetics chairman Norm Smith says plain-bodied, moderate-sized SRS sheep offer not only a solution to the shearing crisis, but financial benefits for the grower.
A national shearer shortage is creating headaches across the country as growers struggle to find shearers and shed staff to shear a clip worth $3.2 billion to the economy.
But Mr Smith, an SRS Merino stud breeder and sheep classer, said sheep with Soft Rolling Skins™, a plainer body, a moderate frame and docility offered a genetic solution to the issue, because SRS sheep were easy to shear and manage.
“Shearing is the hardest manual job left in Australia and I take my hat off to any shearer – it’s not something on young people’s radar anymore.
“As an industry we are slow to move even though there has been a lot of shearer training – the facilities and sheep type should have changed by now and we shouldn’t be talking about this in 2022,” he said.
“Loose and pliable skins are an outcome of selecting for density and length using visual indicators identified by the late Dr Jim Watts including a deep, bold crimp, luster and small bundles of highly aligned fibers giving the flexibility of shearing more often.
“The SRS sheep is highly profitable as it cuts an increased amount of high-quality wool, is easy care and highly fertile,” he said.
Australian Wool Innovation-funded research found that in ram breeding flocks of average flystrike risk, with existing well recorded programs aided by modified MERINOSELECT indexes, it may take between 11 to 20 years to reduce the incidence of flystrike to less than 1 strike per 100 ewes per year. However, Mr Smith said he wasn’t aware of any SRS producers or their sheep were involved in the research and he believed AWI and industry bodies were still dominated by traditional Merino breeding philosophy.
“I think there is politics at play — I don’t know that any SRS breeders were interviewed for that research.”
According to Mr Smith, experiences from commercial growers reveal a mulesed flock can transition to a plain bodied, non-mulesed SRS flock within five years.
“The SRS industry has moved on from the mulesing issue through selection for reduced wrinkle on the body and breech.
“Without the wrinkle, the sheep comb so much better – they are usually the sheep with bold crimping, white wool on a loose skin.”
Compared to the Australian Merino average of 80 percent weaning, SRS growers are achieving over 120pc weaning, he said.
A Meat and Livestock Australia study in 2015-2017 ranked his commercial SRS flock the highest for gross margin per DSE at $71 (top 20 per cent was $54.83), one of the highest fleece values per DSE at $47 (top 20 per cent was $40.17 ) and meat values per DSE at $5.53/kg (top 20 per cent was $5.41/kg).
SRS sheep are good for shearers
Central western NSW shearing contractor Rod Mackander said the financial and physical benefits accrued for shearers in SRS sheds.
“Shearers in my crew will make from $700-$1000 per day shearing SRS sheep.
“The result is they want to keep coming back,” Mr Mackander said.
“Shearers want to go to SRS sheds because the sheep are easier to shear, the shearers have better tallies, and the shearing is easier because the plain bodies allow for cleaner blows.
“SRS sheep are great for learners as they have less wrinkle and learners can place their blows more accurately in this style of sheep.”
NSW shearing contractor and shearer Steve Mudford, Dubbo, said the wool industry needed to focus on improving shed conditions and facilities, breeding plain-bodied sheep with moderate mature body weights of 60-70kg, an increase in the Federal Pastoral Award and a flexibility in shearing dates to attract and retain skilled staff.
“Growers need to straighten their sheep (breed plain-bodied) so they are good shearing, but ensure mature body weights are not extreme – anything over 60kg gets hard to handle.
“Rams and some crossbred ewes can be over 100kg, predisposing shearers to injury,” Mr Mudford said.
His young shearers struggle to shear sheep over 80kg and he feared it could lead to them questioning their career path.
“Farmers used to say we don’t breed sheep for the shearers but these days they need to start breeding them for the shearers if they want them shorn.
“The SRS sheep are good shearing,” Mr Mudford said.
“Farmers need to be versatile in their shearing dates as December to May is chaotic and impossible to get workers.
“If they can communicate with their contractor, be flexible and shear in the quieter months to create a consistent year-round work for people, encouraging them to stay in the industry.”
Easy-shearing sheep, facilities and overseas workers
According to South Australian wool grower and agribusiness consultant Rodney Lush, the shearer shortage needs to be addressed through easy-shearing sheep, well-maintained shed facilities and amenities and the ability to source skilled overseas shed staff to supplement local staff at peak times.
“In the first instance we need to look after the shearers – more money can reward staff but then the challenge for growers is to produce a higher value product to maintain gross margins,” Mr Lush said.
“It’s about breeding a sheep easy to shear and being able to work with your team, contractor or service provider.”
Mr Lush has transitioned to SRS genetics over the past eight years with the aim to maintain a carcase sheep whilst improving fleece traits.
“We select rams in the top 20 per cent of the Dual Purpose Plus Index, top 40 percent for fat, top 20 per cent eye muscle and top 30 per cent growth, then concentrate on the wool traits,” he said.
The October shorn lambs averaged 17.5 micron, cut 2.5kg and had a staple length of 69mm while the hoggets averaged 3.5kg with a 60mm staple the following April on a 12 monthly shearing.
Queensland wool grower, shearer and ex-contractor Shane Axford has run SRS wool sheep since 2002 in 300mm rainfall country at Winton with long-term average lamb weaning of 89 per cent of ewes joined.
“When I was shearing, I would see these big, bold cramped, open wool sheep with no maggots coming through – the wool looked like a 23 micron but was soft, heavy and testing 19 micron,” Mr Axford said.
The light bulb moment set him on a journey sourcing SRS rams and concentrating on frame and constitution followed by wool traits. The adult ewes now average 19.5 micron with fleece weights of 4.8-5.5kg and moderate body weights of 65kg.
Free of skin wrinkle, his sheep are naturally resistant to flystrike and consequently are not mulesed. Overseas processors repeatedly call for Australia to lift its non-mulesed wool production and several have sought wool in other countries because of lack of supply.
“The bare breeches were appearing in 2010 so I stopped mulesing then and now receive a 150-200c/kg premium for non-mulesed wool.
“It also gives you the opportunity to broker contracts for premiums of up to 350c/kg,” Mr Axford said.
He said there was always positive feedback from the shearers on the wool during the main September shearing. The family ensures the shed and facilities for the shearers is clean and comfortable.
“The biggest reason for the shearer shortage is continuity of work and having enough sheep in one area.
“We used to have 900km between our furthest two sheds so traveling and small sheds have impacted the industry,” Mr Axford said.
“There are now no resident shearers in Hughenden, Julia Creek, Richmond or Muttaburra where in Muttaburra alone in 1998 there were 14 teams.”
Bring back the depot sheds
Mr Axford suggested collaborative options where landholders in a region agree to use the one contractor to give continuity of work close to their home base, or a centralized depot for all the region’s sheep shearing and husbandry work.
He said an increase in travel rates, improved facilities and internet connectivity were also required to attract young people and retain skilled staff.