By Matt Reese
Whether managing more for wool or for meat, sheep producers that maximize the production from their flock are better prepared to capitalize on the strong prices in today’s market.
“The meat and the wool are not bringing the prices that they were a year ago, but you have to go back a long way to find total lamb value where it is at right now. There is money to be made here,” said Dave Rowe, General Manager for Mid-States Wool Growers Cooperative Association based in Fairfield County. “Many producers review their breeding programs this time of year and wool quality should factor into determining the rams used for the upcoming year. While we focus on lamb production, focusing on wool quality as well is something that can make a positive impact to an operation’s bottom line.”
“The U.S is still battling the farmer’s love of baling hay with poly string. That hurt the reputation of U.S. wool and it has been a battle ever since,” Rowe said. “If the fibers of the string get mixed into the hay or straw and a sheep lays on it, it sticks right to the wool. Even when you are grading wool closely, it can be easy to miss a piece of string and it is extremely expensive for the manufacturer to pay someone to sit there and pick string out of a finished fabric.
“In the Midwest, we’re raising lambs and wool is not always the priority. There are a lot of black-faced sheep and that doesn’t help. And, sheep are in the barn a lot and that doesn’t help the clip either. There is still good demand for Midwestern wool — with the short supply there is a demand for everything — but obviously there are differences in the price. You’re not going to find much Midwestern wool in suits. It will be more geared toward lower end apparel because our wool tends to be coarser. Lower grade wool goes for blankets and carpets. We do have some finer wools that we can get moved into the appropriate places.”
Whether a flock is capable of producing top grade wool, or something on down the scale, a few simple management changes can maximize the wool dollars.
“A shearer can’t show up and make something better than it is,” Rowe said. “Do you have briars and thistles in your pastures? Are you shearing your sheep wet? Are you feeding round bales and letting the sheep bore through the middle of them and get hay chaff down their backs? Keeping your wool clean maximizes the price that that quality of wool is going to bring. The key is to maximize what you have. Many times we hear producers say that they don’t manage their wool because it isn’t worth anything. Most producers can increase their wool check 100% if they would just get their wool out of the defect grade and into the clear-wool grade, but you have to manage for it 365 days a year, not just the day the shearer shows up.”
Rowe offers the following wool management tips:
• Staple length can be affected by shearing once a year at 12-month intervals. This will provide a three-inch staple, which is used by the largest number of mills.
• The nutritional level of the sheep throughout the year affects staple strength. Placing sheep under stress due to reduced feed intake or excessive worms can cause a weak spot or general weakness in the fiber strength.
• Staple strength is affected by physical stress on the sheep. One of the most critical times in the ewe’s life is lambing. A fever at lambing can place a break in the fiber, which causes the wool fiber to break at a specific point along its length. This break means that there are two pieces of fiber on each side of the break and neither one of the lengths is 3 inches. Shear the sheep prior to lambing.
• Clipping pastures or shearing before the ewes come to the barn for winter feeding will reduce the amount of hay chaff and contamination to the fleece.
• At shearing, management needs to occur before the shearer gets to the farm. Don’t bed the barn the night before shearing is to take place. This straw will cling to the wool and ruin an otherwise useful clip.
• Under no circumstances should wet sheep be shorn. Even a little dampness will allow wool to turn yellow, stain and mildew.
• Keep the shearing floor clean.
• Bag wool one fleece at a time so it can be graded. The preferred packaging material is clear plastic wool bags. Never bag wool in plastic feed sacks. This contaminates wool with polypropylene and this cannot be separated completely at grading.
With these management practices in place, if sheep producers want to further maximize their wool dollar, they need to look at genetics.
“Producers need to decide if their wool is important and then select the right rams. You can improve you wool clip if that becomes a goal for your flock, but it will take some management to do it,” Rowe said. “If black-faced sheep fits the goal for your flock, you are already limited to what you can do with your fleece. Polypays are versatile and popular for commercial producers both in terms of wool and meat. White-faced ewes and black-faced bucks work well because you can get the best of both worlds with quality wool from the ewes and growth and muscle from the bucks.”