Why Sheep don’t need wool

By Lloyd Dunlop 26/12/2014

It is appropriate to look at the state of play of our livestock Industries as we enter a new year 2015.  Again we see that Self replacing flocks of Meat Sheep based on December and November 2014 prices, outperform woolled sheep which outperform cattle and goats on a gross margin analysis, before we look at capital costs.  In short, Sheep don’t need wool because it tends to deny a second annual lambing for meat sheep.

Meat sheep have a distinct advantage over woolled sheep in that they can and do bear and raise more lambs than Merinos giving them access to higher incomes from livestock sales.  This is not a recent phenomenon.  Even Merinos, since the early 90s which have had greater than 75% lambings have made more from sheep sales than from wool income.  Wool has become a by product of high lambings.  Wool is only the main income for those with lambings below 45% on current prices.   2014 and 2013 have been exceptionally low lambing years in Queensland with figures between 10- 30% lambings and attending 10% ewe death rates in unfed sheep in drought.  It is only merino producers with these figures who are true, “dyed in the wool”, wool growers.  By comparison 5 of my 13 clients have achieved lambings in 2014 over 200% in 12 months with flocks ranging in size from 100 – 2500 ewes.  One of those, a stud flock of 100 ewes, achieved 280%!

Now to my simulation including a comparison of Queensland self replacing Breeder herds and flocks based on November and December 2014 prices.  The best performing woolled Merinos are the African breeds of SAMM and Dohne, because of their higher lambing performances, despite or possibly because, they have lower fleece weights than either Macquarie or Riverina strain Merinos and have to rely upon good lambings for income.  A review of the different breeds along with cattle and goats is shown in Table 1.

Table 1.  A comparison of Breeder herds and flocks based on November and December 2014 prices.

Enterprise1 GM/DSE GM/ha
Dorper Double join2  $25.43  $71.83
Dorper Autumn3  $21.51 $44.02
Dorper Continuous4  $21.75 $44.06
SAMM 23 micron5  $16.99  $43.48
 Dohne 19 micron6  $17.23  $40.33
Merino 20 micron7  $19.90  $34.95
Merino 18 micron8 $17.23  $29.98
Self Rpl Herd Cattle9  $7.51  $13.24
Boer Goats10  $1.93  $2.87
  1. All enterprises including Sheep goats and cattle are self replacing flocks and herds. All females are fed at lactation time.   Meat sheep are fed at $20 or $15/ewe, all merino ewes at $15 or $10 /ewe to maximise lambings under semi arid Queensland conditions.  All reproduction rates are related to the 20 micron merino which in this simulation is reflecting the National average of 75% lambs marked to ewes joined.
  2. “Dorper “ is the most easily recognizable breed of Meat sheep. There are other composites available such as the Australian White and Meatmaster, which dominate my 13 consultancy flocks totaling about 55,000 ewes. Double joining represents 2 joinings per annum.  Results of paddock mating through 2013 and 2014 range from 100 – 280% in my clientele.  175% pa is chosen in this example with $20/ewe feeding pa.  The largest ewe flock of 12,000 ewes in CW Qld, in 2014, achieved 141%.
  3. “Dorper Autumn” join is for people who cannot achieve accelerated lambings due to infrastructure limitations such as waters, fences, feed storage. 115% lamb markings with $15 /ewe feeding pa has been elected.
  4. “Dorper continuous” joining. Lamb marking $100% and $10 feed /ewe. Continuous joining is not recommended due to exposure to predators, poorly targeted weaning feeding and marketing..
  5. “SAMM” (South African Meat Merino) has been and probably will remain, the best performing Merino for the last 20 years. Joined once a year with 90% average lamb markings it is comparable with annually mated Dorper options with $15/ewe supplements. An opportunity exists with this polyoestrus breed to double join or lift lamb markings from an annual join.  Not easy with a shearing in the program.
  6. Similarly the Dohne with a mid range body weight and mature size has a heavier fleece and lower markings than the SAMM. Managed well with only $10 ewe feeding it averages about 85% markings well above merino National and Queensland averages.
  7. The benchmark for Australian Wool producers is the 20 micron Macquarie or Riverina strain Merino. It has heavier fleece weights and lower markings than most Merinos at 75% achieved on $10 ewe supplements.  Unfed Merinos in Queensland have had much poorer results than this in recent years.
  8. Few fine woolled flocks remain in Queensland due to their poorer lambings (75% & $10/ewe feeding) lower fleece weight and lower yielding wools due to dust, and flat lining of wool micron price premiums in recent years.
  9. The fortunes of Self Replacing cattle enterprises (95% and $8/dse feeding) has lifted in recent months as has been reported by Wilcock et al in the QCL in 2014. It’s relative position with sheep is unchanged for decades although predators has chewed their way into sheep incomes, when present, making them comparable.
  10. Boer goats or Feral upgrades (105% and $10) suffer from low slaughter specified weights cf sheep and lambs, high predation, and managerial neglect. They are used justifiably for scrub regrowth control as a complimentary enterprise with either sheep or cattle.

So it can be seen that wool is not needed in the modern Merino and it can be argued it is an impediment to high incomes when ewes remain unfed and consistently producing low lambings.  When lamb markings lift above 45% (break even is 45% markings) it becomes a Meat Sheep where Sheep and lamb sales exceed wool sales.  Wool has long been and will remain a by product of Merino enterprises, except at very low lambings.

Conversely, Meat Sheep are not the panacea of fortune making sheep and not all should rush to breed them.  They need a Feral fence often costing $250K – $300K for a 60km boundary in pastoral Queensland just to control pigs and dogs.  The workload to manage them is greater than that of Merinos with strict timings necessary to control rams, feeding and weaning times.  This needs good infrastructure of internal fences and waters as well as expensive supplements, feeding and storing equipment.  Not a game for everyone.

All the Sheep and Goat enterprise above can lift their simulated results by lifting their lamb markings.  Not their wool cuts.  Wool gets in the way of exploiting the all year round breeding characteristics of Merinos.  The upside is proportionate to their Gross Margin rankings above.


Caption 3 This Stud flock of White and Red Meat Master rams now resides at Condamine and Inglestone in Qld.  Sons of these rams achieved 280% lambs marked from 100 daughter Ewes joined twice,  on supplementary feeding in the 2014 drought.


Caption.  Yearling Australian White rams at the Sept 2014 sale at Mendooran NSW.   66 rams averaged $1892.  This 4 way composite shares two breeds with the Meatmaster.  Both breeds stand over Dorpers and have much harder hooves and longer legs better suited for pastoral conditions.

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