David Rowe, General Manager, Mid-States Wool Growers
People raise sheep for a variety of reasons. Most people are drawn to a particular breed because they like the way they look, they wish to show this breed or they know someone who raises this breed. All are good reasons to raise a breed, but the question on how to make money has not even been asked? As we know, the primary reason for most people to raise sheep is to produce a successful lamb crop that can be marketed as well as a wool clip that can be sold. Obviously, the hair breeds will only yield a lamb crop but for the purpose of this article, we will focus strictly on breeds of sheep that yield a wool clip and how we can best maximize our return on the wool we have to market.
Let us look at the factors that influence the price of a fleece. First, how fine is the wool clip from the sheep you are producing? Fine wool will always command a higher price than coarser wools because there are a higher number of uses for the yarn or fabric product. To produce expensive suits and coats, the marketplace is looking for clean fine wool that is a minimum 3” in staple length. This wool is most desirable to the market and brings the top dollar to the producer. While fine wool ewes are providing a valuable fleece, they can also be mated to terminal type (meat type black-faced or meat type white faced) rams to produce excellent market lambs, allowing the producer the best of both the meat market and wool market worlds.
If raising fine wool sheep is not your thing, there are still steps that can be taken to ensure that your coarser wool clip maximizes its return. Producers need to consider that they should worry about their wool clip 365 days a year, not just the day the shearer arrives on the farm. This means keeping the sheep clean and pastures free of burrs and other contaminants or foreign substances. Every foreign substance that finds its way into your wool has the ability to move this fleece from staple length quality wool into the defect bin. No sheep produces defect wool by choice, but, there is a lot of it produced throughout the country. Defective wool can mean many things. It can refer to wool that is contaminated with burrs or hay chafe, wool that has straw included with it, and wool that is yellow in color or that is tender and easy to break. The market sets the price received for all wool depending on staple length and fineness. However, management impacts the amount of wool that finds its way into the defect grade and the subsequent and sometimes major discounts in price that comes with the defective grade of wool.
While we discussed the discounts that can come from management issues, there are also some other factors that can lower the price received for the wool clip. Black fiber is a common problem that we see, especially in black face breeds or brockle-faced types of sheep. When black fiber is present, not only does the wool tend to be coarse, the resulting yarn is limited to the colors that it can be dyed due to the black fiber that is present. Plastic baling string or polyethylene twine is also a concern in the wool industry. When polyethylene contaminated wool reaches the wool warehouse, the problems begin. Polyethylene contaminated wool tends to bring the producer zero dollars because the wool is worthless to the wool industry. There may be some industrial use for it but for the rest of the wool segment of the wool industry it has no value. The plastic that goes through with the wool causes streaking in the dyeing of yarn or fabric since the plastic won’t take dye. This issue then causes the fabric to be hand-picked by a wool mill employee to remove any polyethylene string segments that may be present in the fabric. This increases cost with the potential that something could be missed and a defective fabric is moved along through the system. Furthermore, the presence of hair is also a concern that carries a severe discount. Typically, hair contaminated wool, which is referred to as kemp, and nets the producer zero dollars. Kemp wool tends to be coarse, by its nature it breaks when it meets any resistance and the hair follicle is hollow and takes dye totally different than wool resulting in streaks in the fabric or yarn.
The final issue to be considered is global demand for wool. While there is little that an individual producer can do to influence the demand for wool, it most certainly is the driving force behind the values offered to the producer. The world market has been very tough for coarse style wool for the past three years. This has provided a difficult marketing opportunity for the producers of coarse wool. The fine wool market had been moving along at excellent prices until late spring/early summer of this year when trade issues between the United States and China sent all wool values lower. As we begin a new marketing year, prices still remain soft. I would encourage each of you to visit your FSA office and sign the appropriate papers to be eligible for an LDP for wool.
This article was written to explain the positive and negative actions that a sheep producer can do to improve or damage the quality of their wool clip that they have chosen to produce with their sheep flock. It was not the intention to discuss the merits of various breeds but to provide an educational article of management practices and genetic selection that could affect the price that a producer receives for their wool clip.