Don Van Nostran, Mid-States Wool Growers
Wool is wool is wool. Unfortunately, this is the feeling of many sheep producers when they look at this secondary product produced by the sheep. However, not all wool is the same and a producer has a big effect on the value of their wool clip just by their management practices.
This article will not address wool value based on the genetics of the sheep, because most producers selected their breed of sheep based on a number of factors and wool production may or may not have been one of them. Regardless, most sheep produce wool and therefore we need to manage the wool that is produced by our selected breed.
Most people think of wool management as a one day affair, that being shearing day. In realty wool management is a yearlong process and varies on each farm based on the amount of emphasis the producer wants to place on wool production. For those wanting to maximize the return that their wool crop can produce, there are a number of basic points that you should be aware of.
o Pasture Management – Keeping pastures free from briars and burrs is required. It doesn’t matter if there is only one cocklebur plant growing in your pastures, the sheep will find it and an otherwise top quality fleece will be discounted due to burr contamination. Clipping pastures once a year can do wonders to improving the wool clip.
o Winter Feeding – Many producers shear in March through May. This means that most sheep head to the barns for winter with 8-9 months of well-grown fleece on their backs. Winter feeding contamination seems to affect wool quality more than anything else we see in the warehouse. Big bales of hay fed in cattle feeders that act as a bed for the bale about two feet above the ground are the biggest culprits. They allow the sheep to reach in under the bale and hay chaff drops all through their neck and back and just ruins the wool. Hay chaff is very difficult to remove. Throwing hay from small bales into feeders over the sheep’s back also contributes to this type of contamination. Both can be stopped by proper management and a little care provided by the shepherd.
o Poor Drainage and Mud Holes – Muddy wool lowers the yield and the yield of the wool determines what a producer receives. For example, all of the weight in the fleece of freshly shorn wool is not all wool fibers. Most wool will yield about 50-55% wool fiber in Ohio. What this means is 50% of the fleece is usable wool fiber and the remainder is dirt, lanolin, or other non-fiber problems. Using this 50% example, a fleece that is valued at $1.00 clean wool fibers is worth $.50/greasy pound. However, a fleece that yields 55% is worth $.55/greasy pound. An improvement of 10% in value. Management can affect return to the producer. Mud lowers yield very quickly.
o Shearing Day – Shearing day is the time most of us think of managing the wool clip. Everyone knows that you must be prepared for the shearer before he arrives. This means that the sheep need to be in the barn and dry when the shearer arrives. (The amount of wet wool arriving in the warehouse is surprising.) Don’t feed the ewes for 12 hours prior to shearing. This helps to clean out the digestive tract and is easier on the shearer and ewe and improves the cleanliness of the shearing floor.
o Bedding – Don’t bed with straw the night before the shearer arrives. It may seem like good management to have the barn well bedded, but in reality, the ewes will drag this fresh straw onto the shearing floor and this will contaminate the fleece with vegetable material.
o Labor – Have plenty of help when the shearer arrives in order to keep sheep to the shearer and wool away from the shearer. With fewer shearers available, keeping a good one coming back to your farm is an investment in your future. It also makes sure that you get the wool away from potential contamination and into a wool bag as soon as possible.
o Wool Bags – The most desirable wool packaging material for most small flock producers is the plastic film wool bag. These are relatively new to the industry, but they have made a big difference in reducing the contamination of jute fibers. The combs can not differentiate between wool and jute fibers, but the final product will be of lower quality if the wool is contaminated with jute.
o Sorting – Different parts of the fleece have different values. Belly wool tends to be shorter and dirtier and needs to be pulled out on the shearing floor and bagged separately. Black fleeces need to be bagged separately from the white fleeces so as not to contaminate the white wool with the black wool. Keep in mind that a white fiber can be dyed black or any other color, but black fiber has very limited uses.
o Marketing – If you go to the bother of taking care of the clip from the sheep to the wool bag, you don’t want to drop the ball in your marketing. Different wool has different value and you need to either separate your wool by quality and grade at the farm or through your marketing agency in order to realize your maximum return. If good sorting does not occur, you will receive just an average price that everyone else gets. Your good wool receives the same price as your lower quality wools. There is no recognition of the extra time you took in order to improve your clip.
In summary, most Ohio producers are in the sheep business to raise lambs and well they should be. However, the wool fiber does have value and if properly managed can offset some or all of the shearing bill in many years, even contribute to some other variable costs.
A closing thought: Don’t forget to sign up at your local FSA office prior to shearing and sign form 703. This will make you eligible for an LDP payment on your wool clip. It has been in the $.20/# range for most of the year.