Fine Wool Initiatives
(by Dr Angus J.F. Russel)
Previous issues of Fine Fibre News have carried reports of developments to raise the profile of wool production in the EU. Leo Gallico wrote (FFN, No.4 , p.1) of the importance of wool, and other speciality fibres, for European rural development and outlined the first steps being taken to rectify the omission of wool, as an agricultural commodity, from the Treaty of Rome in 1957. Further action to remedy what must surely have been a serious oversight in the drafting of the Treaty was reported in 1995 (FFN, No.5, p.3). Later that year Jerry Laker presented an outline of the specific measures recommended by the Committee on Agriculture and Rural Development to develop wool production and processing in the EU (FFN, No.6, p.10).
These proposals dealt not only with the need for aid to sheep farmers in marginal areas and the establishment of wool grading and marketing structures, but also with the requirement to establish and disseminate superior fine and speciality wool genotypes of sheep throughout the EU. This article reviews recent progress in the development of two new fine-wool sheep breeds and one particular system of wool production, all of which could make significant contributions to the economic viability of European sheep enterprises.
Before discussing these recent developments mention must be made of the importance of wool quality in any attempt to derive significant income from this product. The main determinant of wool quality, and hence value, is fineness or, in technical terms, mean fibre diameter. The relationship between monetary value and fibre diameter is a decreasing curve. The larger the fibre diameter, the lower its value.The point of inflection in the relationship generally lies around 22 mm. Above this point price is relatively insensitive to changes in fibre diameter, but at lower diameters each micron reduction results in an exponential increase in value.
In many European breeds the mean fibre diameter is greater than 25 mm. Any attempt to reduce fibre diameter by selective breeding will be unlikely to result in a sufficient improvement in fineness to attract a higher price per kilogram and, because there is a positive relationship between fibre diameter and fleece weight, would most probably produce a reduction in fleece weight. The consequence would be an overall reduction, rather than an increase, in the value of the fleece.
In breeds with mean fibre diameters of less than 22 mm, however, a small improvement of 1 - 2 mm in fineness will lead to a significant increase in price per kilogram which, in most cases, will more than offset any small reduction in fleece weight and will result in an increase in the value of the fleece. Such increases in monetary value can be quite dramatic where the reduction in fibre diameter is from, say, 18 mm to 16 mm.
In the UK, and notably in Scotland, there is currently an interest, albeit small, in fine wool production. This interest exists across all types of sheep farms from lowground to hill and mountain areas. The UK operates what is known as a “stratified” system of sheep production, with pure breeds maintained on the highest and poorest land resources being crossed with Leicester-type rams to supply crossbred ewes to upland and lowground farms, where they in turn are mated to terminal sires (e.g. Suffolk or Texel) to produce finished lambs for the meat market.
Scottish Fine Wool Producers - a group of some 30 sheep farmers from the south of Scotland to the Shetland Islands - have developed a breeding strategy which gives improved returns from wool at a number of points in the stratified production system. This strategy is based on a new breed of ram, the Lomond, developed from a French Est-à-Laine and Saxon Merino cross which has been selected for its wool characteristics. Lomond rams are used in the stratified production system, in place of the more usual Leicester-type sires, and are mated to ewes of one of the finer native British breeds, usually the Shetland.
The Lomond half-bred ewe and wether progeny are shorn as lambs (a practice which is not usual in the UK) and produce fleeces worth about £5.60 (approximately 8 ECU) per lamb. The female progeny are either kept for breeding on the farm on which they were born, or sold as breeding stock to a farm on lower ground. As adult ewes they produce fleeces averaging about 3.3 kg and worth some £6.50 (about 9 ECU).They, in turn, are mated to terminal sires and the fleeces of the resultant progeny are still sufficiently fine to command a premium and justify their being shorn prior to slaughter. It has been calculated that gross margins from this system are about £13 (about 19 ECU) per ewe greater than from a traditional crossbred ewe flock - an increase of more than 30%.
The additional income accruing from the use of the Lomond ram is attributable in part to an increase in the fleece weight of the crossbred ewe, but is principally a consequence of improvements in wool quality (i.e. fineness) which attract a higher price per kilogram and make worthwhile the shearing of lambs before slaughter. The fibre diameter of Lomond half-bred ewes and wethers is typically about 22 - 24 mm and that of their Suffolk or Texel cross lambs of the order of 24 -26 mm.
Whereas the Lomond half-bred ewe is essentially an upland or lowground sheep, the Bowmont ewe, recently developed by the Macaulay Land Use Research Institute, has been bred for a different sector of the sheep farming industry, viz. extensive hill farms.
The Bowmont’s origins lie in a study of the potential to increase income from wool on hill and upland sheep flocks in the UK (Saul, Russel and Sibbald, 1992; 1993). This work suggested that a cross between the finest-woolled British breed, the Shetland, and the world’s finest-woolled breed, the Saxon Merino, could theoretically produce a sufficient quantity of high quality wool to make it economically attractive to UK hill sheep farmers.
This theory was tested by mating Shetland ewes to Saxon Merino rams to establish the Bowmont breed, which has subsequently been subjected to selection for wool quality and the ability to survive under relatively harsh climatic and topographic conditions. Unlike the Lomond, the Bowmont is used principally as a pure breed and not as a source of sires for crossing with traditional hill breeds. It is a small sheep, ewes weighing not much more than 40 kg. Ewe fleece weights are between 2.5 and 3.0 kg and the current average fibre diameter of the flock at the Institute’s Sourhope research station is just under 20 mm. Mature wethers have produced 5 kg fleeces and a few individuals in the flock have fibre diameters in the 16 - 17 mm range. With further rigorous selection there is every reason to believe that mean fibre diameter can be reduced by at least 2 mm within a few generations.
It is difficult at this stage to put a value on Bowmont wool; there are no classes in the current British Wool Marketing Board price schedule which cater for wool of such high quality. At world prices, however, individual ram and ewe hogg (yearling) fleeces have been valued at more than £35 (over 50 ECU). This compares with an average value of about £2 (3 ECU) for a typical hill ewe fleece.
Two major roles are envisaged for the Bowmont breed. The first is in regular-aged wether flocks managed extensively in low-input systems on the poorest hill land resources. These areas currently support flocks of breeding ewes which achieve only very low physical outputs (often between 55 and 75 lambs weaned per 100 ewes mated). These flocks would not be economically sustainable if the current high levels of EU and UK government support were reduced or withdrawn. Under the prevailing legislation wether sheep do not qualify for support. If in future the regulations are changed and subsidies are paid, for example, on an area or labour unit basis, as opposed to a per ewe basis, the farming - or perhaps the ranching - of wether sheep, which require little or no supplementary feeding and incur only minimal veterinary costs, could be economically viable and indeed financially attractive, provided that their wool is of a high quality and can be marketed at ruling world prices.
The second role for Bowmont sheep is on the less severe farms where breeding flocks could be maintained to supply wether sheep for the extensive, low-input system of management referred to above. Substantial benefits in terms of income from wool could again be expected without penalty to other sources of income. Experience with the Bowmont is still limited, but the indications are that lambing performance is of the order of 1.25 lambs per ewe, i.e. comparable to other hill breeds. Prices for wether lambs sold for slaughter have been very satisfactory. It is anticipated that prices of ewe lambs or yearlings sold for breeding, and of male lambs to replenish the wether flocks on the poorer land resources, would be similar to or greater than those of the traditional hill breeds.
A third fine wool project which is attracting interest in the UK is a “Sharlea” system of production operated by Border Fine Merinos, using purebred Saxon Merino wether sheep. In this system, pioneered in Australia, wether sheep, covered with canvas coats to protect the exceptionally high quality wool from contamination by feed or faeces, are kept in a slatted-floor building and fed rationed quantities of a specially formulated diet.
Fleece weights are about 3 kg and the quality of the wool comparable to the best produced anywhere in the world. The first bale of wool from this project averaged less than 17 mm and sold for £40 (58 ECU) per kg greasy fleece weight. The project is now in the process of fulfilling an order for 14.0 -14.5 mm wool for which it has been guaranteed a price of £80 (115 ECU) per kg greasy wool. This specialised wether flock is replenished from a small breeding flock which also produces exceptionally fine wool, but because these sheep are maintained outdoors and are subject to the vagaries of weather, endo- and ectoparasites and variations in nutrition, as well as the demands of pregnancy and lactation, their fleeces are more variable and worth some £35 - £40 (50 - 60 ECU) - which is still more than ten times that of most other breeds!
The three fine wool production systems outlined above are complementary to each other. The project based on the Lomond ram offers opportunities to the lowground sheep enterprises producing finished lambs for slaughter, and also to the upland and hill enterprises producing crossbred ewe stock. The Bowmont caters for the farmers on the poorer land resources supporting either extensively managed wether flocks or, where conditions are not too severe, breeding flocks producing female replacements and wethers for the more severe areas. The Sharlea enterprise is a very specialised system requiring continuous housing for the wether flock and relatively dry conditions for the breeding ewes, as well as a high degree of management skill and technical expertise.
All three projects can currently demonstrate significantly higher returns from wool than the traditional systems to which they offer alternatives. They are, however, relatively recent innovations and there is every reason to believe that, as they develop, wool quality will continue to improve further. The qualities of the wool from the three projects, although quite different from each other, all lie within the area of the price : quality relationship where even a small improvement in fineness attracts a substantial increase in value.
Anonymous, 1995. Fine Fibre News 3:1. Recommendations announced of the COPA/COGECA “Sheep” Working Group on European Wool.
Gallico L., 1994. Fine Fibre News 4:1. The importance of wool and spaciality fibres for European rural development.
Laker, J., 1996. Fine Fibre News 6:10. Report on the need for support measures for producers and processors of European wool.
Saul, Russel and Sibbald, 1992. Agricultural Systems 39:273-287. Potential systems for increasing income from wool in hill and upland sheep flocks in the UK.
Saul, Russel and Sibbald, 1993. Small Ruminant Research 11:1-9. Potential of different sheep breeds to improve wool production on UK hills and uplands sheep farms.
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