In the world of fashion, Allen Kelly & family’s farm is a the very beginning of the supply chain. Their farm, Glen Holme, in South Australia breeds Dohne (pronounced doo-nee) merino sheep as well as growing mixed crops.
In Australia, most farms are owned by families and Allen is the third generation to farm at Glen Holme.
His care and responsibility towards animals is evident in the way he talks and handles them. As a schoolboy he was allowed to manage sheep, he bought his first cattle on leaving high school, and as a young man he trained as a jackeroo specializing in Poll Shorthorn cattle and merino sheep. He returned to the family farm to farm in partnership with his parents, and when he married his wife Joy also became a partner. His agronomist daughter Lauren and son-in-law Damien now farm in partnership with them.
Allen came to the book launch of Zero Waste Sewing and was frankly appalled at the waste in the fashion industry. I invited him to talk about his part in the fashion supply chain and he kindly agreed.
I had a very pleasant and fascinating time talking to Allen about sheep, wool growing, mulesing and other stuff.
I asked him how the pandemic is affecting (or not affecting) Aussie wool growers.
The pandemic has had many effects for Australian wool growers. The wool price lost a large percentage when mills were closed for health reasons. As an example, our sort of wool (20 micron) has had close to a 50% drop. Consumers who have lost employment stopped buying as well.
Shearers have been hard to source (state borders have been closed in Australia), and often only half the shed staff could be employed at a time to aim at social distancing. Less shed staff could travel together in cars, meaning more vehicle trips were needed.
Sales in some states needed an online interface for ram sales. Livestock markets had attendance limited to buyers and agents only, no vendors or onlookers, and covid safe rules need to apply to all gatherings and On Property sales.
We had cancellation of research projects when company representatives couldn’t travel interstate due to travel restrictions.
Machinery parts have taken longer to arrive, and sometimes their arrival from overseas has been later, more expensive or both.
Good things include better PA systems at auctions and some changes to habits eg running water for hand washing for shearing shed staff.
Most people we need to deal with were either open for business or working from home because agriculture is an essential service. Thanks to mobile phones and the internet, most questions have been attended to quickly.
Mulesing is where the excess skin around a lamb’s tail and bottom is cut away to make the skin bare and make the animal less susceptible to flystrike. Flystrike is caused by flies laying eggs in the sheep’s moist woolly wrinkles, which hatch into maggots and feed off the animal’s flesh; if left untreated it’s fatal within a few days.
At Glen Holme we ceased mulesing almost entirely at the end of 2011 and have not at all the past 2 years. This was after years of reducing the practice and observing the results. We noted a large change from 2012 onwards because the lambs no longer suffered a significant setback from pain and discomfort while they were healing. This let to production gains from not mulesing! We now visually score each lamb for the amount of clean skin around the tail area and use the information to select breeding animals for the future. We also provide an estimated breeding value for this trait to our customers who are looking to buy rams at our annual sale. This is also publicly available information from the Sheep Genetics Australia website search function.
Mulesing is practiced by some growers in Australia that have refused to adapt to a change in community expectations. There is clear evidence that plenty of wool production is possible on sheep that do not require mulesing because they have been bred and selected to have a significant bare breech. Some countries have no need to mules because of their type of sheep. New Zealand has banned the practice.
I asked Allen if Australia is likely to ban mulesing, and he said, yep, he reckons in the next 5-10 years; if not in 5 then in 10. He said that the practice hurts the Australian wool industry as a whole, because anyone wanting to buy wool from non-mulesed sheep cannot always determine if it comes from mulesed sheep or not, so Aussie wool is avoided altogether.
Sustainability, chemical use and sheep care
Some consider wool to be the most sustainable fibre there is. Is it inherently sustainable or does it depends on the grower?
Wool is grown by specially bred sheep that capture nutrients and energy from plants grown on suitable soil using rainfall and sunlight.
It’s very sustainable because it can be repeated year after year with careful management. Some people are better at this than others of course.
How do you reduce chemical use and how do you use chemicals wisely on a farm? And what are the alternatives?
We try and breed the type of sheep that minimizes the use of chemicals because we want to keep chemicals out of the environment – our work environment when we’re working (with the sheep, because it gets on our clothes), the sheep’s skin environment because it is applied to them, but also the industrial environment through the scouring process. If there’s any chemical residue left in the shorn wool, there’s no chance it can come out until it goes to the scouring house which might be overseas and is frequently in a semi-urban area. Then they are left with the problem of disposal of the waste.
So we go back to the “grassroots level” if you like, and try and breed a plain (ie wrinkle-free) sheep that’s just about free of body wrinkle. It makes it really easy to keep lice out of a flock if your sheep are able to be shorn very clean because sunlight and exposure to air will kill any lice as long as there’s no wool length over about 17mm. And so having this breed of sheep is one of the factors that we have found to be really successful; it makes it a lot easier to keep your flock free of lice.
We don’t dip our sheep because we don’t need to because there’s no lice problem. We also don’t protect our sheep with what’s called jetting, which is applying a residual chemical to the backline of the sheep (from the the top of its head to the tail) to keep blowflies away. We try and breed sheep that don’t get flystrike.
If you chemically prevent flystrike you cannot identify the individual animals that are genetically more susceptible to flystrike. We choose not to apply those chemicals in order to (a) learn which types are susceptible and (b) identify them so as to remove them from our future breeding flock.
So it’s important for us to have environmental pressure (such as blowfly-loving humidity or summer rainfall) to make selection choices, and that’s why we don’t use chemicals; we need to be able to identify the susceptible animals. Our solution for all of these things is genetic because that’s ongoing for our clients and their flocks for more generations to come. Making a change through genetics does not just cause change for that animal, but for every generation going forward.
In addition to talking about chemical use, Allen also told me about pain medication for sheep.
We only use a pain relieving product during of the tail docking process. I believe that all sheep breeders should choose to use pain relief. If necessary, its use should be mandated.
Is it possible to trace a wool garment back to the farm it was grown on? Is that something that will become commonplace?
Absolute traceability is rare, but does exist where there is vertical integration within the industry. Regional traceability is becoming more commonplace and comes with certain requirements from the producer with regard to ethical treatment of animals and declarations of any chemicals used. These must be within label standard dose rates and required time intervals prior to shearing. Traceability is becoming more common due to consumer demand.
At Glen Holme they collect information on each individual sheep and record it on computer. Allen shows how they collect and record the data in this video:
In this video Allen shows why they select sheep with bare, rather than woolly, faces:
Merino wool and “the prickle factor”
What is the biggest thing that affects the quality of wool on a sheep?
Fibre diameter and the co-effiecient of variation of fibre diameter are the most important factors of wool quality.
Human skin is sensitive to “prickle factor” from any fibre ends that are over 30 microns. A micron is one millionth of a metre. There are good quality sheep that produce over 5 kilograms of fleece per year under 20 microns in diameter. These can have a prickle factor of 0%.
How do you measure microns then? Can you measure while the wool is still on the sheep?
We test all our young sheep for wool quality. This is done by taking a small sample of wool using snips and having it analysed in real time. We use a service provider for this and pay per animal sampled. It’s a painless operation. We receive data on fibre diameter, coefficient of variation of fibre diameter, standard deviation, percentage under 15 microns, percentage over 30 microns (prickle factor) and other measurements. The testing method is Optical-based Fibre Diameter Analysis (OFDA).
Wool bales are also tested prior to sale as lots. Australian Wool Testing Authority certifies each test. Wool is sold by test result and a grab sample is also on display prior to auction.
What’s the difference between merino wool and other wool? (other than it grows on merino sheep!)
Some other breeds of sheep can and do have similar wool to merino sheep, but it’s largely a descriptive type that is understood in the industry because of the way that merino wool behaves under processing. Some breeds of sheep have fibre diameters of 40 microns! (for some of the British breeds). Our fleece lines measure 20 or less. Others have a hair-like fibre or even medulated (hollow) fibre – this does not take dye consistently. Merino wool is low in medulated fibre count.
What makes merino wool particularly valuable? Why do prices vary from bale to bale?
Merino wool is considered to be the highest standard of fibre from sheep. Most of the wool that we produce is 20 microns or less, with very low prickle factor. Very good quality merino wool can be used for undergarments and is particularly suitable for children and adults with skin conditions including eczema (as shown in this report).
The three major determinants of price are: fibre diameter, percentage yield of wool and staple strength. Staple strength influences the tension to which wool can be spun to a fine thread. Generally speaking, price goes up with decreasing fibre diameter, increasing yield and increasing staple strength. A low coefficient of variation within any average fibre diameter is often associated with greater staple strength, and is heavily influenced by the environment, notably the stable supply of nutrient and absence of stresses like heat, cold, pregnancy or lactation.
What’s the USP of wool you grow?
USP relates to lanolin production. Lanolin is the naturally occurring grease component of wool. It is recovered during the scouring process and is a valuable bi-product. We have no information on USP, it is not reported to us.
On farm, lanolin protects the wool fibre from the natural elements of dust and rain. It is highly desirable to have lanolin in the right proportion for the environmental conditions.
What changes do you see on the horizon for Aussie wool growers?
Society has changing expectations about the traceability of food and fibre. Ethical raising and treatment of animals is a growing expectation, if not a demand. Wool growers need to adapt in a pro-active fashion and tell the good news to the consumer.