Shedding sheep – Wool you or won’t you?

By Lee Matheson, Perrin Ag

A perfect storm has been brewing. Low wool prices, increasing shearing costs, dilapidated wool harvesting infrastructure (historically known as woolsheds), a tightening labour pool and an apparent lack of consumer recognition of wool’s inherent values and performance as a fibre, are all contributing to increasing moves towards shedding sheep.

It is a potentially divisive and emotive topic when raised with sheep farmers. The noise around the place for shedding breeds like Wiltshire and the Aussie White has grown from a barely audible whisper to a drum beat that is becoming hard to ignore. So, amongst all of the excitement and the apparent mad dash of farmers to use their last cheque to buy a shedding ram, what do we actually know about the value proposition they pose?

The reality is surprisingly little.

While shedding breeds have been in New Zealand for well over fifty years, it has been a long, slow decline from wool being the mainstay of a sheep farmer’s income to today, where most of us have lost money from harvesting crossbred wool. As a result, research and commercial investment has, unsurprisingly, been directed towards producing the fertile, higher yielding, increasingly FE resistant dual-purpose sheep flocks most of us are familiar with. Given the familiarity, most are rightly reticent about losing the genetic gains from these flocks just to give wool the chop. 

What is the research saying?

A new programme at Massey University’s Riverside Farm was recently launched to objectively compare the performance of Wiltshire-cross progeny with their Romney half-siblings. Until now, there had been no independent research into the performance of shedding breeds in New Zealand conditions. With this research in its infancy, we are still some way off using the individual animal evaluation data with confidence in whole farm system analysis. My friend Will Morrison (Morrison Farming) also informs me that until quite recently there were only three Wiltshire flocks registered on the industry SIL index, compared to some 600 flocks of Romney, Coopworth and other conventional breeds. Based on this fact alone, the industry isn’t exactly spoilt for choice for elite shedding rams.

However, some of the early data from Riverside, as well as anecdotal information from the few farmers who have been farming shedding sheep for many years, indicates that the introduction of shedding sheep genetics into our flocks does not mean sacrificing growth rate or fertility. There appears to be the potential for lower death rates from misadventure and fly strike, as well as a reduction in animal health treatments, dipping, mustering, handling and shearing associated with sheep that shed. In addition, their lack of wool is increasingly alluring as animal welfare and reduced chemical use in farming become an increasing focus for our consumers. And given none of us are getting any younger, the thought of not having to drag a 65kg ewe across the board twice a year is an appealing one.

What about crossbred wool?

Has the sun set on this carbon-dense, sustainably produced and resilient fibre? Not according to Bremworth, who was confident enough to announce last year that they were moving back to solely producing 100% wool carpets, which they have now achieved. The recent appointment of ex-Icebreaker head honcho Geoff Smith to the CEO role at the company also suggests Bremworth might sense the potential for a tectonic shift in the perception of wool by consumers. Is a new dawn for wool about to break?

So, what to do?

After a recent day out with a group of farmers exploring this issue, I’m personally no closer to reaching a conclusion to this seemingly binary question of whether to stick with wool, or not. But what I am clear about is that for farmers, doing nothing isn’t an option. 

A basic straw poll of that particular group of farmers resulted in what I thought was a typical outcome – a few were trialling shedding rams, most wanted to hold back and wait to see how the industry and market moved over the next 4-5 years, and a handful were committed to wool production.

What was interesting to me was that when asked, none of that group were actively selecting for the wool characteristics in their rams that their consumers might want. In fact, no one actually really knew what they should be producing. Only one business had invested in the wool value chain beyond their farm gate and none had any real connectivity to their customer. Hardly the building blocks for a vibrant and profitable NZ wool industry that can deliver what consumers want.

There’s an old adage that says doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result is akin to stupidity. You could say that any continued inertia by farmers in response to the current situation for crossbred wool might be getting close. To be clear though, I’m not suggesting that persevering with a woolled crossbred sheep is stupid – far from it. Initiatives from companies like Bremworth and trends in consumer preferences hint at better days and prices ahead. The question in my mind is therefore less about “should farmers move to a shedding sheep or not?” and more about “if farmers choose to grow crossbred wool, what are they going to do about it?” We need to stop the wool industry happening to us and start making it happen by us.

“Wool” we step up to the opportunity or not?



Lee Matheson

Managing Director
Principal Consultant

B.Appl.Sc (Hons), FNZIPIM (Reg)

Lee came to agribusiness consultancy via the unlikely pathway of a suburban Wellington upbringing, an Honours degree in plant science and a six-year career in the financial markets. In his role as the firm’s MD, Lee doesn’t get out on-farm as much as he used to but makes the most of it when he does. While having swapped the paddock for the boardroom, Lee continues to provide advice in the areas of farm business strategy, farm system innovation, corporate governance, investment analysis and economic research.

Outside of Perrin Ag, Lee loves to spend his time coaching rugby, watching his three kids play sport and gardening with his wife Haidee.

“I love the challenge of empowering people in our primary sectors and the excitement of seeing clients achieving their aspirations. If we can encourage farmers to engage with their consumers, take a more active involvement in their supply chains and view their businesses through a wider lens, then I think our industries have a great future.”

Abbey Dowd

Consultant

B.Ag.Sc (Hons), MNZIPIM

Abbey joined Perrin Ag in February 2023 as part of the firm’s graduate recruitment programme, Empower.

Abbey grew up surrounded by dairy farms in a close-knit community in South Waikato. She saw first-hand how local farmers supported her community, which is what inspired her to study at Lincoln University.

Growing up in a rural community Abbey has always been impressed by how much local farmers contribute to the community. She wanted to help give back to the industry and play a part in helping our primary sector continue to produce quality food in a sustainable way.

In 2022, Abbey spent the summer as an intern on one of New Zealand’s first commercial deer milking operations. Her Honours project was researching deer milk alongside other more traditional milking operations and assessing the deer milking industry’s future production possibilities.

“Growing up I didn’t live on a farm, but I always knew I wanted to work in the farming sector. I wanted a role where there was a balance between working on and off farm and where I could support farmers to get the best out of their businesses.”

Sam Gray

Consultant

Sam grew up on a dairy farm in the Far North. After graduating from the University of Otago in 2005 with an Honours degree in molecular biotechnology, he spent several years working in medical research in New Zealand and Scotland. Upon returning to New Zealand in 2012, he spent four seasons dairy farming in Northland before purchasing a 56 ha block in Taupо̄, where he was first exposed to farming under a nitrogen cap. Sam joined Perrin Ag in 2023 and brings his strong analytical skills that are grounded by a pragmatic approach to problem solving. Outside of farming and consultancy, you’ll likely find him fly fishing, hunting or snowboarding.

“A lot of farmers feel overwhelmed in the face of a rapidly changing regulatory landscape. I strive to help farmers understand what these environmental regulations mean for their business, and offer practical solutions that allow them to keep doing what they do best, whilst remaining compliant”.

Danni Armstrong

Finance administrator

Danni grew up on a life style block in Atiamuri and spent five seasons as a relief milker in the area. During this time, her full time roles were in various fields including the rental car, health care and marine industries. Danni has had a focus on administrative and accounting duties, but is also proficient in looking after customers especially well, social media and website operation, running a rental car fleet and the associated tasks like training, rosters, H&S and organising repairs! Danni joined Perrin Ag in May 2021, to be part of a business in an industry she is passionate about.

During her spare time Danni can be found reading a book with her cats or out enjoying the walks in Rotorua’s Redwoods.

“What motivates me each day is knowing that I will be challenged with a range of problem solving tasks. I love to see all the figures adding up and knowing that my role makes a difference to the team.”

Duncan Walker

Director
Principal Consultant

B.Appl.Sc, MNZIPIM (Reg)

Coming from a drystock and dairy farming background, Duncan has always been passionate about growing primary sector businesses. Whether it’s pastoral farming, forestry, horticulture or investments outside the farm gate, sustainably optimising business performance is Duncan’s passion. After graduating from Massey University with a Bachelor of Applied Science in Agribusiness, Duncan’s first opportunity to optimise a farm business was by undertaking a dairy conversion. Duncan project managed the conversion and continued to run the dairy farm for a further three years.

Since joining Perrin Ag in 2011 Duncan works with a wide range of clients including those ‘outside the farm gate’. With his strong background in investment analysis, business strategy and project management, Duncan is increasingly working with clients to analyse and integrate horticulture and forestry investments into their farm businesses.

“I enjoy helping clients navigate through the complexities of today’s operational, financial and environmental challenges. Seeing clients achieve their goals is very rewarding”

Lee Matheson

Managing Director
Principal Consultant

B.Appl.Sc (Hons), FNZIPIM (Reg)

Lee came to agribusiness consultancy via the unlikely pathway of a suburban Wellington upbringing, an Honours degree in plant science and a six-year career in the financial markets. In his role as the firm’s MD, Lee doesn’t get out on-farm as much as he used to but makes the most of it when he does. While having swapped the paddock for the boardroom, Lee continues to provide advice in the areas of farm business strategy, farm system innovation, corporate governance, investment analysis and economic research.

Outside of Perrin Ag, Lee loves to spend his time coaching rugby, watching his three kids play sport and gardening with his wife Haidee.

“I love the challenge of empowering people in our primary sectors and the excitement of seeing clients achieving their aspirations.  If we can encourage farmers to engage with their consumers, take a more active involvement in their supply chains and view their businesses through a wider lens, then I think our industries have a great future.”