Australian Wool Industry

Attendance at yesterday’s RAS Sheep and Wool Show Opening reminded me that I had never recorded the speech I was invited to deliver at the same event two years ago. It seems that it remains relevant to this great industry.

President RAS- Rob Vickery (and Tina)
Chairman Sheep and Wool Committee- Robert Ryan
President NSW Stud Merino Breeders Association- Rob Lindsay-
President Australian Stud Sheep Breeders Association Ltd (NSW)-Ian Cameron
GM Agriculture RAS- Sue White

Ladies and Gentlemen
I am indeed very honoured to be asked to perform this task. Sheep and wool have played such a special place in Australia’s history both in economic and cultural terms.
It is great to be amongst so many friends and such magnificent animals and fleeces.

I am mindful of the platform this official opening has provided for the airing of some of the great issues that have beset the merino section in particular, of the wider sheep industry.
(I could have referred to destructive internecine warfare, but I thought better of that.)

What I would like to do in these few minutes is to share with you some broad observations covering the merino, meat and dual purpose sections of the overall “Sheep industry”. I am mindful that this is not only a merino Show.

Even that segmentation (merino,meat and dual purpose) is misleading as it infers that merinos are not meat sheep. The facts are, however unintended, many merino breeders/woolgrowers over the last decade or so, have been principally in the meat business at least until the last year or so, when we have seen better wool prices.
This fact has been well recognised by the NSW Stud Merino Breeders when they introduced the Merino Wether Lamb Challenge within the annual Dubbo Show and Sale-a very appropriate and innovative initiative.

The thinking and attitudes of all of us are greatly influenced by our individual experiences. In my case, twenty-eight years as an employee of Dalgety, what used to be known as a “Pastoral House” or a “Woolbroker”, then nineteen years with Clyde have left their mark.

According to the media Clyde is Australia’s largest woolgrower and its fourth largest cotton grower (when we have any water). (I understand we run number seven with wheat and are one of the largest beef producers in NSW, but are not in the big northern Australian beef league).

Clyde runs 120,000 merino breeding ewes with 12,000 of these on Pier Pier at Coonamble, being joined to Borders. The tops of the Ist X ewe lambs from Pier Pier go to Wirribilla at Walcha where we run 10,000 Ist Border/ Merino X ewes which are joined to Dorsets. Thus the Company has considerable exposure to the wool and sheepmeat markets and a vital interest in the future of these industries.

We spent a not so small fortune in feeding our breeding ewes through the drought, being mindful of the massive drop in sheep numbers and the fact that the merino ewe is the cornerstone of both the wool and meat sheep industries.

Our management focus is on driving down unit costs of production. I believe that we producers can only have limited influence on consumer markets in the great population areas of the world and our main focus needs to be on the things we can control or influence.
In this regard the work the specialist meat breeds have done on genetics and nutrition over recent years, coupled with the development of export markets (lamb to U.S. in particular) has been one of the great success stories of Australian agriculture.

The merino segment has often been criticised for its lack of productivity increases. However, considerable progress has been made, particularly in producing more wool of lower micron on larger animals. This real progress is masked in the aggregate figures. You could not fail to be impressed when you look at the wool quality and quantity on the magnificent animals you see around us here today.

More needs to be done to reduce wool harvesting costs, not to mention the urgency of developing practical mulesing alternatives. In the short term, whether the intradermal approach or the use of clips proves the way to go, I’m not sure. What I am confident of, is that with the current pressures the industry will find a way. Longer term, surely a genetic solution will be developed-whether that be producing bare-bottomed sheep (with plenty of wool elsewhere) or genetically developing infertile blowflies, remains to be seen. I don’t think Australia would be the poorer if the blowfly entered the threatened species list, although there would no doubt be a dark green group somewhere which would find cause for complaint. After all we now have people in Victoria trying to have the dingo declared a threatened species.
Australia produces 60/70% of the world’s apparel wool-the only broadacre industry where Australia is the dominant world producer. So it is vitally important that we have a vibrant, innovative sheep industry led in genetic terms by the stud breeders.

Whilst agriculture continues to grow in absolute terms, this growth has been tiny compared with the massive growth of our minerals and energy sector. Agriculture remains a significant contributor to our export income.

However, Australia’s ever increasing urbanisation means that agriculture is an area of considerable mystique to much of our population and is faced with a very real communications challenge in “selling” its benefits to the broader Australian populace. It is events such as the Royal Easter Show, which provide a wonderful opportunity to take up this challenge.

All too often agriculture is seen as environmentally damaging and yesterday’s business, with the wool industry in particular singled out for much criticism. How frequently do we hear the criticism, often from people who ought to know better, that all we have done in Australia is apply inappropriate European agricultural methods to a land we did not understand? This is truly insulting to our forbears, let alone to some of the world’s very best agricultural scientists.

Our forebears quickly identified the fact that merino sheep thrived, particularly in our arid and semi-arid areas and could produce top quality wool. I have always been impressed by the way our early stud breeders identified the Riverina and the Macquarie as areas where merinos would thrive and set up their studs there, so soon after white settlement.

As for being yesterday’s business, reflect on the fact that over the last 15 years, in the face of generally low prices, but with premiums for finer wools, and throw in the worst drought in Australia’s recorded history, the industry has adapted by halving the total sheep flock whilst doubling the production of wools 19micron and finer. I am not talking in % terms, but in absolute quantities.

What happened to the salinity beat-up (at least in Eastern Australia) of a decade ago? Now the negative focus is on “climate change” and the fact that we will have variable seasons. I wonder what some of these evangelists think we have been dealing with for the last 200 years?

I was much impressed with the wheat farmer on a recent Four Corners programme who when asked about climate change quite innocently responded “we definitely had that-it is always highly variable and is always changing”!

With those few observations let me conclude by simply saying-
The stud breeders of Australia of all commercial animals carry a huge responsibility to lead the way with genetic improvement. They stand at the top of the genetic pyramid and lead the industry on the genetic front.

It is imperative that they remain open-minded and embrace relevant science and technology that contributes to the need to produce ever more productive animals.

I congratulate all of the exhibitors on the quality we see before us both in the sheep and fleeces and I have great pleasure in declaring the 2008 Sydney Royal Sheep and Fleece Show officially open.

David Boyd

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