Flocking back to wool
When our Test cricketers run onto the pitch they wear wool grown in the Flinders Ranges of South Australia. The region’s hardy flocks and their enterprising producers provide a neat snapshot of today’s Australian wool industry.
Our wool industry is in rude health.
IN THE STONY COUNTRY east of Jamestown, in southern South Australia, sheep paddocks are as big as skies. It’s dry here, beyond Goyder’s Line, which indicates reliable rainfall and separates cropping and grazing lands. Summer is bearing down, forcing Geoff Power to begin hand-feeding the 3000 sheep on his 5040ha property, Sambas. “They’re all on natural pastures,” he says, “but we got no winter rain and the kangaroos have been killing us.”
In an industry steeped in tradition, Geoff is something of a stray. He grew up in Melbourne, with no farm experience or wool connections. “It was always my dream, ever since I was a little fella, to grow wool,” he says. “It’s taken 50 years to get to where we are today, slowly accumulating land and sheep. It’s a challenge when the weather is out of your control, dogs are on the prowl, there are animal welfare issues to deal with and fashions change 16 times a year. But I love sheep and wool is such a versatile product.”
Even Geoff ’s dedication, though, was tested by the Millennium Drought, which lasted from 2001 to 2009. With wool prices f lat-lining and sheep carcasses worth little more, he decided something had to change. The wool that other Flinders Ranges growers were producing was clean and green, yet synthetic f ibres had a stranglehold on the textiles industry internationally.
“At the end of the day, wool is a commodity and we needed to f ind a point of difference,” says Geoff, the former president of Livestock SA. “For us, that was where and how we grow that wool in an ethical and sustainable manner.”
So Geoff and eight fellow producers banded together to establish best-practice group Flinders Merino. “We benchmarked against each other, and started identifying our
strengths and limitations,” he explains. “Some of us have since altered our shearing times, and our ewes now lamb in June or July when there is more green feed about. We’ve increased our lambing percentages and we’re value-adding by shearing the sheep we sell for meat. We’ve got two barrels loaded all the time.”
Famously, wool from Flinders merino growers now knits its way into Test cricket jumpers and vests, in what Geoff calls a “proud marketing opportunity”. Others in the region have dipped their toes in the Australian Football League uniform market. Typical of woolgrowers the country over, Flinders producers are working hard to improve their sheep management and capitalise on new outlets for their beautiful product.
The lustrous superf ine f leeces from Australia’s eastern states and Tasmania tend to command the most attention, especially among Italy’s notable suit-makers. But it’s sheep like Geoff ’s that make up the lion’s share of the Australian f lock – a f lock that had been steadily declining. The demand for sheep-meat, a string of poor seasons in the 2000s and wild dog attacks led many producers to switch from wool production to wool and meat production or to abandon the industry altogether.
Only this year are national sheep numbers and the wool clip expected to begin recovering from historic lows (see page 73). It’s been a boon for the true believers who have stuck with wool, with tight supply producing record prices in recent months. Our country may never again ride on the sheep’s back, but the industry celebrated in our music, art, literature and architecture is as enduring and robust as the merinos on which it was founded.
AT NORTH ASHROSE, ONE of Australia’s most prestigious merino studs, a regal ram known affectionately as Horse strikes a fetching pose. “He’s a very upstanding ram,” says fourth-generation stud breeder Matt Ashby of the two-year-old elite sire. “You can pick it as soon as they are
Australia’s sheep flock is slowly recovering from years of poor wool prices and drought, ensuring spirited bidding for merinos, especially, at livestock sales like this at Jamestown.