Fundamentals of Sheep and Wool

Original Version

WOOL 300 provides a detailed introduction to the Australian sheep and wool industry and production systems. It outlines the factors affecting the production of sheep meat and wool and considerations the producer needs to take into account including nutrition, genetics and environment. It also outlines the marketing systems for wool and the importance of meeting consumer demands for the sustainability of the industry.

The course has been designed for joint delivery by UNE and New England TAFE. It includes 20 topics.

Topic 01: Fundamentals of Sheep and Wool

This topic will introduce the key factors that characterise the Australian sheep industry including the environments in which wool and sheepmeat are produced, the different enterprises responsible for sheep production and their relative contributions to the industry, historical and current trends in sheep population and wool and sheepmeat production and state and regional differences in sheepmeat and wool production.

On completion of this topic you should be able to:

  • articulate your understanding of the Australian environments in which sheep production is undertaken, specifically rainfall patterns and how these influence pasture growth and composition: and
  • describe the range of Australian sheep enterprises, including the difference between specialist woolgrowers, prime lamb producers, dual purpose enterprises and mixed enterprises, the determinants of farm income, the major production costs and the variation that exists in farm productivity and profitability between individual farms within a district.

Topic 02:Important Characteristics of Wool

The majority of wool produced in Australia is of Merino origin and is generally produced under grazing production systems. Merino wool tends to be finer and more suited to end-use in fine apparel. Australian wool also has a reputation for being relatively free of dark and medullated fibre contamination due to stringent clip preparation procedures. There are many characteristics of wool that can affect it’s suitability for particular processing procedures and end uses including fibre diameter, staple length and strength, fleece weight, colour, style and contamination. This topic aims to outline how these characteristics impact on wool quality and their effects on price received for wool. The influence of time of shearing on these characteristics will also be discussed.

On completion of this topic you should be able to:

  • Describe the properties of wool contributing to a high quality fleece;
  • Understand how timing of shearing can affect wool quality traits; and
  • Understand how wool quality traits impact on the price received for wool.

Topic 03: Genetic factors affecting wool production

This topic describes the different sources of genetic variation and how these can be manipulated to improve wool production from a given flock. It also outlines some of the breeding strategies that may be used to improve fibre diameter and clean fleece weight despite their antagonistic genetic relationship.

On completion of this topic you should be able to:

  • Describe the sources of genetic variation that can be exploited to manipulate wool production and quality; and
  • Know the basic considerations required for a genetic improvement program for wool producing sheep.

Topic 04: Nutritional determinants of wool quality and quantity

An animal’s capacity for fibre production and the quality of that fibre is determined by its genotype. However, its ability to express this genetic potential can be modified by a number of factors, the most important of which is nutrition. Furthermore, nutrition can be used to manipulate current flock performance whereas selective breeding is used to change the ‘future’ flock.

On completion of this topic you should be able to:

  • Describe the pre–natal influence of nutrient availability on follicle initiation and development;
  • Understand the importance of feed quantity and quality in determining fibre growth rate and quality; and
  • Become aware of the opportunities of manipulating fibre production and quality via grazing management.

Topic 05: Physiological and environmental determinants of wool quality and quantity

Many physiological and environmental factors influence the quality and quantity of wool produced on farm. These factors need to be managed to optimise wool production and quality. There are many management strategies that need to be considered including time of shearing, disease control, timing of cull sales, grazing management and reproduction management. Many of these factors interact in their influence on wool production.

On completion of this topic you should be able to:

  • Outline the effects of sex, age and reproductive status on wool production and quality;
  • Detail the major diseases of concern to the Australian wool industry;
  • Outline the key environmental factors affecting wool production and quality; and
  • Describe the alternative strategies available to wool producers to manage the constraints imposed by physiological and environmental factors.

Topic 06: Wool marketing and clip preparation

Although the volume of wool produced in Australia has been declining, Australia is still the largest producer and exporter of wool in the world. The major export market for Australian wool is China with demand increasing from 38% in 2002 to around 77% in 2012. India is the second largest export market for Australian wool and is projected to increase competition with China for Australian greasy wool. In 2011-12 Australia produced 424 000 tonnes of greasy wool with 405 000 tonnes of this being exported (ABARES 2013) with a value of $3.07 billion.

On completion of this topic you should be able to:

  • Know the major markets for Australian wool;
  • been introduced to the general processes involved in wool marketing, particularly clip preparation, specification of the raw product and selling systems;
  • become aware of the measured and assessed characteristics of raw wool;
  • become aware of the influence of fibre characteristics on the value of the raw product;
  • An understanding of the structure of the wool marketing chain;
  • Understand the importance of classing wool to prepare even lines for sale;
  • Understand the role of the AWEX Code of Practice for Preparation of Australian Wool Clips in clip preparation.

Topic 07: Sheepmeat Production Systems

As consumers have become more discerning in their preferences for meat consumption, meeting market specifications for sheep meat production has become more important. This has meant that producers have had to change their production systems to ensure they are meeting specifications for carcase weight and fat depth to continue to be profitable.

On completion of this topic you should be able to:

  • Demonstrate an understanding of the different requirements for supply of lamb and mutton for the domestic or export markets; and
  • Describe the different production systems used to meet requirements for supply of lamb and mutton.

Topic 08: Nutritional Management of lambs for Finishing

Growing lambs require a balance of energy and protein in their diet for optimal growth. In some situations lambs will have to be fed supplements with the intention of maximizing lamb growth to achieve target market specifications. Sometimes it may be more economic to allow slower growth rates and have lambs reach target weights when prices are higher.

On completion of this topic you should be able to:

  • Understand why protein and energy requirements change during life of the lamb;
  • Explain the difference between supplementation, substitution and complementation when feeding lambs;
  • Describe non-nutritional issues that affect lamb performance and their management; and
  • Discuss finishing options for lambs used in the Australian lamb industry.

Topic 09: Quality Assurance for Sheepmeat Production

This topic describes the practical on-farm quality assurance measures that producers should consider to minimise the risk of the customer being dissatisfied with the sheepmeat product supplied. Customers all over the world demand food products that are of consistent quality and free of chemical residues and other contamination. It is important to the long term sustainability of markets for Australian products that as all meats are facing continued pressure to be safer, healthier and taste better. Of the factors that impact on these aspects of quality some can be controlled by producers but many others are influenced by downstream actions in the transport, processing, retail and food preparation sectors. This lecture focuses on the production sector.

On completion of this topic you should be able to:

  • Understand that simple preventative on-farm measures can be put in place that will minimise the ‘nasty surprises” that customers may find in the Australian sheepmeat.
  • Understand that these procedures need to be documented to provide evidence to customers on request that they have been followed.
  • Be aware of the industry wide quality assurance programs in which Australian sheepmeat producers may participate.

Topic 10: Marketing Systems for Sheep and Sheepmeat

Meat sheep may be marketed in Australia as stud, store or finished stock. This topic deals with both store and finished meat sheep. Until the mid 1970s there was little change to the method of selling or marketing meat sheep .Since then descriptive language has been implemented for live sheep and carcases though AUS-MEAT. The industry has adopted methods to transfer carcase description from farm to retail and back again

On completion of this topic you should be able to:

  • Understand the relative merits of different marketing methods;
  • Understand carcase feedback;
  • Understand the importance of receiving feedback in meeting a target market;
  • Understand the different marketing systems used to sell finished, store or live export sheep or lambs;
  • Understand the language which is used to describe sheep or lambs both live and in carcase form;
  • Have an appreciation of industry development of value –based marketing;
  • Understand the components of live assessment of sheep and lambs for sale; and
  • Understand why live assessment of sheep and lambs is necessary.

Topic 11: Processing of sheep and sheepmeat

This topic covers the processes involved in slaughter and preparation of sheep for slaughter to meet animal welfare and consumer standards for a quality product. This topic is taken from the International Sheep and Wool Handbook, Chapter 30, Courtesy of Australian Wool Innovation Limited.

On completion of this topic you should be able to:

  • Describe the processes involved in slaughter of sheep for meat;
  • Describe the importance of pre-slaughter management on product quality;
  • Outline the impact of processing method on product quality and methods to improve quality;
  • Introduce the importance of grading systems for sheep meat.

Topic 12: Industry services for Sheep Genetics

Sheep Genetics (SG) is the national genetic information and evaluation service for both the meat and wool sectors of the sheep industry. SG has been developed jointly by Meat & Livestock Australia (MLA) and Australian Wool Innovation Limited (AWI), together with industry.

On completion of this topic you should be able to:

  • Understand and describe the way in which Sheep Genetics has improved sheepmeat production;
  • Understand the relevance of genetic correlation to ASBVs;
  • Be able to separate environmental from genetic effects; and
  • Understand the measures of accuracy for ASBVs and FBVs.

Topic 13: Managing Sheep Health

Disease is one of the major environmental factors, like nutrition or climate, which markedly influences the efficiency of sheep production for wool or meat. This lecture introduces you to the major disease challenges facing sheep and the mechanisms by which they influence sheep productivity and welfare. The lecture will then briefly describe some important diseases of sheep.

On completion of this topic you should be able to:

  • describe the major disease challenges faced by sheep during their lifecycle and the reasons why these challenges occur when they do;
  • discuss the impact of disease on sheep productivity and underlying mechanisms for this; and
  • describe and the most important production diseases of sheep and their control.

Topic 14: Grazing Management

Grazing Management can be a useful and powerful tool for livestock producers to achieve a number of goals.

On completion of this topic you should be able to:

  • demonstrate a thorough understanding of grazing management concepts and principles;
  • discuss relevant literature relating to grazing management;
  • access and utilise recent research and extension efforts describing sustainable grazing systems;
  • understand terms and definitions used for describing different grazing methods/systems including benefits and limitations to these systems; and
  • discuss the influence of grazing management on livestock production.

Topic 15: Dry Year Management and Supplementary Feeding

The variable nature of our Australian climate makes it almost impossible to rely on pasture alone as the basis for efficient livestock production and certainty in being able to meet consumer’s expectations for delivery and quality. In most parts of Australia there is a predictable pattern of rainfall and pasture growth. Predictable winter rainfall in southern Australia is associated with a very dry summer leading to predictable feed shortages in late summer and autumn. In the tropics the characteristic summer rainfall and dry winters make feed shortages in late winter a common occurrence. Supplementary feeding to maintain stocking rates and to meet production objectives is a standard practice under conditions where there are predictable extremes in pasture production.

On completion of this topic you should be able to:

  • discuss planning and managing sheep production in expected and unexpected dry periods;
  • justify your selection of strategies for the sheep producer in times of drought;
  • explain your design and implementation of a program of supplementary feeding;
  • discuss animal welfare and productivity • evaluate using crop residues for animal production; and
  • apply your knowledge to practical aspects of supplementary feeding – what nutrients are needed and when to start feeding, selecting the most appropriate supplement, how much to feed, feeding methods and when to stop.

Topic 16: Pregnancy and lambing management

High flock reproductive performance is essential for maximising profits particularly in a prime lamb enterprise. To achieve this appropriate pregnancy and lambing management, particularly from mid-pregnancy to lamb marking, needs to be practised to ensure maximum lamb survival. Nutrition during pregnancy and lambing is critical so throughout this lecture there will be references to pasture benchmarks required to ensure nutritional requirements are met..

On completion of this topic you should be able to:

  • Understand how real time ultrasound scanning fits into an annual flock reproduction program;
  • Understand different aspects of lambing management • Understand the range of predators that influence lamb survival;
  • Understand the differences between primary and secondary predation;
  • Have the skills to identify different reasons why lambs die from birth to two weeks of age; and
  • Understand target fat scores and nutritional needs through pregnancy.

Topic 17: Precision sheep management

Precision Sheep Management (PSM) is a practical approach to managing sheep (sub) flocks to achieve increased profits. By collecting individual measurements on animals, the top and bottom performers in the flock can be identified and grouped to maximise production and minimise costs. There is a large amount of variation between animals for most traits and by collecting and using this information for selection, nutrition and disease management there can be large benefits.

On completion of this topic you should be able to:

  • Describe what Precision Sheep Management (PSM) involves;
  • Describe the tools available for precision sheep management;
  • Outline how PSM can be used to improve sheep enterprise profitability and how it applies to both wool and sheep meat enterprises; and
  • Describe how PSM can be implemented on-farm.

Topic 18: Husbandry Calendars and Benchmarking

Setting up a profitable husbandry calendar is not a simple task. It involves assessing the resource base of the farm and juggling management events to get the optimum compromise between conflicting needs of pastures, animals, financial resources and labour. There is no one right answer as to what would be the most profitable husbandry calendar, however there are some guiding principles that will allow the manager to set up that calendar within the resources allocated.

On completion of this topic you should be able to:

  • define what drives profitability in sheep enterprises; and
  • use the key principals that will enable prioritisation and organisation of management events in order to achieve the most profitable compromise for a farm.

Topic 19: Key Profit Drivers for Sheep Enterprises

In broadacre farming businesses, the key resource limitation is land. Because land is so expensive it cannot easily be acquired to increase the scale of the business, and in addition there is a significant amount of fixed costs that come with owning and farming land which means that to generate an acceptable profit the land must be operating near its economic capacity. The economic capacity of the land will be that point at which additional spending within the area under management brings no higher return than that generated from buying additional area. Maximum profit per hectare is therefore the key objective in the operation of a sheep enterprise.

On completion of this topic you should be able to:

  • Identify the three key variables in the profit equation;
  • Understand the relationship between production per hectare and cost of production;
  • Understand the relative importance of drivers of lamb and wool production per hectare;
  • Understand the impact that timing of sales has on price received for lamb; and
  • Understand how the timing of sales will impact on production per hectare and cost of production.

Topic 20: Sheep Enterprise Case Studies

This topic provides case studies of two sheep enterprises located in geographically diverse regions. The first is an enterprise located in South East South Australia and is a mixed enterprise with prime lamb, wool and crop production. The second is located in the New England region of New South Wales and would also be considered a mixed enterprise but with more focus on superfine wool production with some prime lambs and cattle. The aim of this topic is to outline how the production environment and therefore management inputs differ between the two locations and enterprise types.

At the end of this topic you should be able to:

  • Demonstrate a thorough understanding of the factors that impact on profitable production of sheep enterprises in different geographical locations; and
  • Discuss the impacts of management practices relating to problems encountered and overcome, animal health, pest management, grazing systems, production levels and genetic merit.