New Zealand's wool industry is in crisis and it's serious, says Woodville farmer for 66 years John Bradley.
Bradley joined a large number of farmers from around the region at the Beef + Lamb New Zealand Tararua Farming for Profit Seminar in Dannevirke last Wednesday, with the focus of the day, "Wool, wool, what is it good for?"
"People are still interested in wool, but we need to seriously look at the future of the wool industry," Simon Marshall, of Vet Services Dannevirke, said.
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The focus of the seminar was to explore the future of the wool industry in New Zealand and what farmers could do in an environment of low product returns and high shearing costs.
"It's a matter of, is the wool industry on track, off the track or over the bank?" Bradley told the Dannevirke News.
"It's serious when farmers are sending stock to the freezing works with their wool on because they get a pittance for that wool.
"Our national flock peaked at 75 million sheep and it's now down to 22 million, that's affecting a heck of a lot of shearers and shed hands as well as farmers."
Annie O'Connell, Beef + Lamb New Zealand's national genetics manager, discussed with farmers how to get more economic value from their wool.
But she said there wasn't much of an appetite for the selection of sheep for wool quality alone.
Electronically canvassing the farmers and industry professionals at the seminar, the results showed that 60 per cent of those in the room saw the main block for the uptake of selection on wool quality was that the returns weren't enough.
"If you want more money you've got to get finer, because stronger wool isn't attracting good prices," O'Connell said.
However, she conceded if farmers were going to go for finer wool, they had to ensure the market was there.
But veteran farmer Bradley said a lot of variables were involved in what wool farmers could produce.
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"You can't chase the market," he said. "Fifty years ago wool was only a bi-product, with mutton in big demand. Within four months wool prices went up and mutton down."
Breeding "bare" sheep to get rid of wool was a bit of a short-sighted reaction.
"There's no substitute for wool in the clothing industry," Bradley said.
A representative from Kells Wool in Hawke's Bay said there was quite a large price drop at the coarse end of the market, but there were a lot of factors influencing price.
"Half a micron can be a 30-cent difference," she said.
Dannevirke's Mavis Mullins spoke on behalf of Paewai/Mullins Shearing and told the farmers there was still potential in what they were already growing.
"Wool is a great product," she said. "Wool is what I live for."
Pressures on the industry included meatless meat, wool-less sheep and consumer activism, Mullins said.
The fourth generation in the family shearing business now run by daughter Aria, Mullins attended a Vanguard forum at Stanford University, looking at what wool could offer.
The forum was totally focused on cross-breed fibre and strong wools.
"The world really is moving towards natural fibres, with companies such as Tesla and IKEA, embracing it.
"There are surfboards made out of wool and resin, with champion surfer Kelly Slater using wool surfboards," she said.
"There's also a huge business for wool yoga mats, with the number of global yoga practitioners in the millions.
"I'm quite buoyed by how close scientists are to deconstructing wool to reconstruct (for other uses). The wool job is going to be all right and I do believe in it and we sit right beside farmers."
However, there were problems facing the shearing industry too, with national training in failure mode, Mullins said.
"It's a shame," she said. "At Paewai/Mullins we are committed to training our own staff, but there are pressures on our side of the industry and Aria now has 20 per cent of international staff in her sheds, that's about the norm.
New Zealand shearers can go to Australia and earn more than they can here, with shearers earning $7 a sheep in Norway.
"But our biggest competition for staff is Work and Income New Zealand (Ministry of Social Development)," Mullins said.
"We've got a system which is an alternative. So if we can't get the people we need, we have to make them and that requires farmers to be patient and accepting of learner stands."
Addressing the elephant in the room, the pay rise for shearers, Mullins conceded it was overdue, despite the price of wool being down.
"As a community and primary sector, we are all in this together," she said.
Mullins said she was concerned about the number of lambs that went to slaughter woolly.
"It's an issue for contractors and impacts on planning, but we understand," she said.
The Shearing Contractors Association put up pay rates for shearers by 25 per cent and Aria said she thought it "was pretty harsh on farmers".
"I totally agree with farmers who would have liked to see the rise come in over three years, but our back is against the wall," she said.
But Mullins said contractors couldn't dodge the increase.
"If we don't pay it, we'll have no staff," she said.