Two-tooth Wiltshire ewes with lambs.

Preview: No wool, no worries

Shearing, dipping, crutching, dagging, docking and much of the mustering and yarding are things of the past on a King Country sheep farm. Russell Priest reports on a wool-less revolution.

No-wool sheep have delivered a 61% reduction in labour costs and a $256/ha increase in farm surplus compared to woolled sheep for King Country farmers Grant and Sandy McMillan.

Grant and Sandy McMillan.

When wool prices dropped to $1.70/kg in 2005, the Ongarue couple reluctantly began to consider farming sheep without wool.

“We were farming dual-purpose, strong-wool sheep and focusing on meat production ’cos that’s where the money was. But the farming activities related to wool were seriously interfering with meat production,” Grant says.

Today that vision has been realised and Grant has no regrets. “There is a serious disconnect between strong crossbred wool and the consumer with it being forced out of the market by cheap and easy-care synthetics.”

He also feels a sense of guilt that if the concept of no-wool farming is adopted widely this will affect employment for those involved in the wool industry.

‘Most cockies only look at the shearing cost and the wool cheque however there are numerous costs associated with growing wool, some of which farmers may not have even considered.’

Grant’s life-changing decision in 2005 resulted in his buying three Wiltshire ram lambs in 2006 from Marton farmer John Morrison who at the time was farming the largest Wiltshire flock in New Zealand. John has been instrumental in keeping the Wiltshire breed going.

Grant chose Wiltshires because they are a specialised meat breed, have a history of some fleece shedding and have been in NZ longer than the only other shedding breed in the country, the Dorper.

“What a lot of people don’t realise is that not all Wiltshires shed so my challenge in achieving my vision has been to breed a shedding Wiltshire and that’s what I’ve been doing for the last 13 years.”

John didn’t share Grant’s vision but has developed his own easy-care breed using the Wiltshire to peel wool off the points, produce a higher percentage of A wool and reduce the cost of crutching and dagging.

Grant believes there was no point in producing a sheep with less wool because they still require shearing and producing less wool means there is less income to offset the costs associated with growing it.

“Most cockies only look at the shearing cost and the wool cheque however there are numerous costs associated with growing wool, some of which farmers may not have even considered.”

Grant’s list includes shearing, dipping, crutching, dagging, docking, labour involved in mustering sheep to perform all these jobs and losses associated with wool like flystrike, getting cast and drowning. There are also the significant production losses from having stock (particularly lambs) off pasture to perform these jobs.

“Either you remain serious about growing it and grow as much as possible or don’t grow any at all,” Grant says.

Only his Romney and Border Leicester Romney-cross hoggets were mated with the Wiltshire ram lambs in the first year of the programme. The mixed-age ewes were mated to top facial eczema (FE) tolerant Coopworth rams from Northland breeder David Hartle.

The McMillans wanted to take a cautious approach by farming a grading-up Coopworth flock alongside the grading-up Wiltshires and comparing their relative performance without fully committing themselves.

Results from the first cross were positive so the breeding programme continued with mating hoggets to speed up the grading-up process.

Dagging was eliminated after the first cross, however the intermediate crosses still required shearing and some fly control.

“Some farmers have stuck with the partially-shedding cross, but we wanted to get the full benefit of the shedding trait.”

The McMillans’ selection programme focuses on a commercially acceptable phenotype, early shedding enabling them to assess shedding ability and fibre length. Wiltshires will produce 10-70mm of fibre length and Grant wanted to exploit this variation by establishing which fibre length suited his farming environment. He now prefers those growing about 30mm of fibre.

In 2008 Grant bought some Wiltshire rams from Wellsford’s David Arvidson. He was impressed with the phenotype and soundness of his stock, their degree of tolerance to facial eczema and parasites, the use of Sheep Improvement Limited and other genetic technologies to genetically evaluate his flock and his breeding objectives.

David has bred and recorded Wiltshires for 25 years with more of a focus on carcase conformation, performance and soundness than their ability to shed. Since meeting Grant he has collaborated with him on this trait.

Grant now buys his rams exclusively from David, looking for a good phenotype and as much genetic diversity as he can get. He leaves the genetic selection to David.

Eight years of top-crossing with Wiltshire rams were required to achieve 100% shedding and now 13 years later, 95% of the lamb selection decisions Grant makes about shedding are correct.

The crunch year for the McMillans was 2015 at which point half their flock had been bred to Wiltshire rams and half to Coopworths. With help from local farm consultant Geoff Burton the McMillans completed a comparative financial analysis of the two breeds based on the data collected over the previous 10 years but with particular emphasis on the last three (see side-bar).

Grant is emphatic that the comparison was not about breeds but about farming dual-purpose sheep producing strong crossbred wool verses sheep generating no-wool income. That comparison resulted in the Coopworths being gradually phased out and the Wiltshires filling the void.

Grant says the change suits their stage of life.

“Less time involved in sheep handling and stock work has taken the physicality out of the job which has meant we can keep doing what we love longer and have more time for other things.”

  • Read the full story in the April edition of Country-Wide magazine.