Restocking post-drought has presented the ideal opportunity for Australian Merino enterprises to make significant changes to a non-mulesed sheep.
With 16 per cent of the national clip declared non-mulesed and international demand rising, the time is ripe for growers to focus on drawing up a detailed plan to introduce non-mulesed genetics as they rebuild flocks.
Although genetic improvement can occur quickly on the ground, fundamental change within a whole enterprise, especially to the mind set, was required to ensure success, according to NSW wool grower Chad Taylor.
Mr Taylor ceased mulesing 12 years ago within his Mumblebone stud at Wellington and believes the shift to non-mulesing revolves around adapting to change.
“Change is a constant and the better we adapt to change, the stronger our businesses can be,’’ he said.
“And, mulesing is another opportunity to look at adapting to consumer needs and concerns. As their awareness of ethical management grows so too must we grow our ability to meet those needs.’’
The Taylor family’s commitment to animal welfare has made the Mumblebone wool more appealing and marketable in the buyer’s mind.
“It is still difficult to put an actual dollar figure on the premium buyers are paying but it is unquestioned that more people are buying unmulesed wool,’’ Mr Taylor said.
“In our micron category of around 19, it could be in the vicinity of $2/kg.
“It does, without question, increase the number of people bidding on the wool as some brands will only compete on unmulesed lines.’’
Mr Taylor said moving an enterprise towards an unmulesed flock required a solid commitment from management, staff and service providers before sourcing ewes and rams.
“All decision makers in the business need to be consulted,’’ he said.
“If sheep are evolving from a traditional background, it will be a significant step.
“The genetic change can happen quite quickly, but the bigger change is more likely to come at the management level, with people being on board to want to make that change.
“If Merinos have been run for many years that should continue. It’s the type of Merino and hwo they are run, that will be different.’’
Mr Taylor said ceasing mulesing involved attention to detail in worm control, grazing management, animal health programs, business and staff management.
“Any breeding program needs figures behind the traits being selected – we use a broad range of traits in the rams we breed for our own use and for ram buying clients,’’ he said.
“The traits critically important to select rams on are breech wrinkle and breech cover.’’
Mumblebone rams will be offered for the first time this year with measurements for both traits.
Those traits then need to be combined with other traits important to individual enterprises, such as fleeceweight, staple length, carcase, micron and growth, Mr Taylor said.
“A focus on single traits, whether that is breech wrinkle or fleece weight, leaves us open to problems elsewhere,’’ he said.
“It’s important to maintain a broad range of traits in our mix, even if that means avoiding the disasters while selecting for real strengths in others.
“In the short term, the use of chemicals or a hand piece will help transition the flock to a plainer bodied animal.
“We have a long tail length out to the third or fourth knuckle, and find it maintains the muscles to lift and move the tail, leading to less problems.’’
Mr Taylor said moving from a traditional Merino to a non-mulesed flock would come at a cost in fly strike management around the breech.
“That can be bred out in maybe one generation, and certainly two generations,’’ he said.
“Fleeceweight is antagonistic with a plain bodied animal but that is where the importance of breeding values comes into the mix – select for plain bodied animals that maintain fleeceweight.
“We have DNA tested 1800 stud ewes to increase the accuracy of our breeding values to allow people to select for sheep which don’t need to be mulesed but also cut good weights of wool.’’
Mr Taylor said the premium paid for non-mulesed wool was countering the discount on non-mulesed restocker sheep.
“We have clients resisting ceasing mulesing because of the penalty in the surplus sheep market,’’ he said.
“But, we aren’t seeing a discount for our own unmulesed sheep from people wanting to go with that type of animal and tap into the lucrative market for unmulesed wool.’’
Mr Taylor said a review of the flock calendar of operations was required to target times of year to facilitate change.
“We have done a lot of tweaking over the last few years but settled on a plan for six month shearing around an animal that doesn’t need to be mulesed,’’ he said.
“Don’t be fearful of making mistakes but maintain confidence in the overall direction you are heading in.
“If there are local growers who have made the change, they would be a great source of information.’’
Focusing on improving lifetime welfare rather than mulesing itself was critical, Mr Taylor said.
Growers wanting to cease mulesing need to ask their ram suppliers about appropriate data to select animals on, and is the accuracy of those figures sufficient to make decisions on.
When selling declared non-mulesed wool, the Taylors use Responsible Wool Standards, Authentico and SustainaWOOL accreditation schemes.