Header Image

Helping grow
the country

< Back to Latest News
Wool News: How Nutrition Improves Wool Quality
8 April 2021

Wool News: How nutrition improves wool quality

By Laura Pattie, PGG Wrightson Veterinary Nutritionist BVSc (Dist)

Many factors affect wool growth, including nutrition, genetics, the environment, the season and animal health. Nutrition is one factor a woolgrower can manage to improve wool quality and production.

Wool is a complex protein compound called keratin, formed from nitrogenous materials consumed by sheep in their feed. Of the total feed and nutrients eaten by the animal, a certain portion is dedicated to maintenance, growth, activity, pregnancy, lactation, and wool production. In terms of the way in which sheep prioritise nutrients, wool growth is a low priority, and so the animal will sacrifice wool production early on if nutrients become in short supply.

Two main factors affect staple strength, these are minimum diameter of the fibre and rate of change in fibre diameter. Nutrition affects both these wool characteristics. Thinning of the growing fibre along part of its length causes a decrease in staple strength and this is known as tenderness. Poor nutrition inhibits wool growth and thins the fibre, while inconsistent feed levels will result in fluctuations in diameter and staple strength. This results in wool falling short of the specifications that garment manufacturers seek. Timing, content, balance of nutrients and consistency of feed intake therefore play a crucial role in producing strong quality wool.

There is often a concern among woolgrowers that feeding stock well will cause fleeces to increase in fibre diameter, commonly referred to as ‘micron blowout’. The opposite is true where if sheep are underfed their fleeces will be finer, known as ‘hunger fine’ wool. As well as negatively impacting animal welfare, growth, and reproduction, overall production will be lower with reduced fleece weights if sheep are underfed. A finer wool can be achieved through genetics and feeding ewes well during pregnancy and lactation. The lamb’s future wool production is affected by nutrition of the ewe during pregnancy and early lactation. Lambs born to underfed ewes may grow less wool with increased fibre diameter. While underfeeding reduces the fibre output from wool follicles resulting in finer, shorter wool, generous feeding levels support longer, stronger fibres and heavier fleece weights. Consistency of feeding and feeding to maintain good body condition will maximise fleece yield and quality in sheep and their offspring.

Seasonally, periods of surplus feed, such as in spring, will typically precede feed deficits over summer, leading to gradual or even acute fining of the wool fibre, and reduced staple strength. The balance of energy and protein in the diet is important, and in general it is the amount of one or the other that sets a practical limit to wool production. More critically, sudden changes in the amount or quality of feed can reduce staple strength and fleece yield. For animals going onto crop, such as clover, lucerne or forage brassicas, this is an abrupt change in nutrition. It takes three to four weeks for the animal to transition and adapt to the new feed. Having a plan in place to transition animals onto new feed helps to manage the risk of changes in fibre diameter and wool tenderness.

Any animal health event can create stress, resulting in wool tenderness or wool break: the stress hormone cortisol causes the wool follicle to reduce wool growth. Minerals, such as sulphur, cobalt, copper, iodine, selenium and zinc, play an important role in the quality of wool.

Alongside ensuring consistent levels of feed, ensure an animal health programme is in place for an effective drenching programme and trace mineral supplementation. Pasture and forages can be tested to measure trace mineral content and assess any requirement to supplement.

For more information contact your local PGG Wrightson Technical Field Representative.

Related Articles

Wool News: Wool Market Update - Improvement in crossbred sale prices for first quarter

08 April 2021

Growing demand from overseas mills has pushed up crossbred prices at wool auctions throughout February and mid-March to prices at least at pre-Covid levels. There has been a slight tempering of these increases throughout late March as overseas markets adjust to these increased values.

Crossbred wool makes up 85 per cent of New Zealand’s clip. In recent years the price of crossbred wool has fallen well short of a sustainable level, and values hit rock bottom last year during the Covid lockdown. A price reduction of between 30 and 40 per cent occurred when the pandemic precipitated serious disruption through the wool supply chain, this on values already at historically low levels. At sales this year however, values have lifted notably and across the board.

Chinese New Year celebrated this year in early February is a period we are always aware of. China is the most significant market for New Zealand wool, taking around 55 per cent of our clip. Typically during Chinese New Year wool mills shut down and manufacturers take a holiday from the market. That was not the case this year as we continued to write new business with our Chinese customers.

India has also provided vigorous market competition during recent auctions, alongside the European mills.

Although the situation is short of what we would all like, the percentage of lots passed in at this year’s auctions has been low: growers are prepared to meet the market, with a stoic level of realism around the values on offer.

Although the recent market improvement is encouraging, we still have a long way to go before growers can generate any significant enthusiasm. Global demand for wool over time is projected to continue to rise steadily as more and more consumers wake up to its characteristics as a sustainable, biodegradable, natural fibre. Returns should at least hold steady, if not continue to build. By continuing to work closely with our overseas customers, as the world wakes up to the attributes of wool that competing fibres can never match, we will support and grow our market wherever we can.

In the present circumstances growers need to remember that the best prepared, higher quality wools will continue to command a premium: vigilance in the wool shed is the key to maximising returns.

Grant Edwards
General Manager
PGG Wrightson Wool

Wool News: Staff Profile - Marcus Loader Believing in our fibre

08 April 2021
Known for being straight up, honest and to the point Marcus Loader is sold on wool, and recommends everyone else in the sector should take the same approach.

“We need to believe in what we produce. When you look at competing synthetic products, they are promoted by big companies. Those that shout the loudest sell the most. We need to learn how to market wool positively. To make sure we are heard by the population we need to believe in our sustainable, renewable, natural, biodegradable fibre, and tell our story,” he says.

Marcus has been PGG Wrightson wool representative for Wairarapa, based in Masterton, since 2010.

After growing up on a local sheep and beef property, managed by his father, Marcus always knew his future was in agriculture, though after being among the last graduates of the Massey Wool Diploma in 1990, he took a 15 year detour into dairy farming, heading to the Waikato to milk cows.

“We moved into sharemilking, and owned a 150 cow farm for three years, though staff became a massive issue, and we wanted to come back to Wairarapa. Fortunately the shares and land values peaked in 2006, while the payout was declining, and we sold up at just the right time,” he says.

Back to his home region, Marcus wouldn’t swap.

“It is a renowned farming district with genuine strong hill country, and the farms are well cared for.

“On the coastal country with its wind we can grow the brightest, whitest wool. I drive around 70,000 kilometres per annum, and it’s a very nice part of New Zealand to do that mileage in. I enjoy the countryside and visiting well looked-after properties,” he says.

Despite the winning vistas and well-tended farms, low returns are a challenge.

“In the more marginal parts of the region, forestry and carbon credits have driven significant land use change recently. In some parts of Pongaroa you’re looking at miles of dots: several farms, a huge area, all sold for trees. While the previous owners decided to sell for genuine reasons, it is difficult to see these properties taken out of farming.

“Fortunately, we still have plenty of good farmers out there growing a genuine product. Some show the benefits of 30 years of genetics, improving their clip out of all recognition, sticking to strong wool, growing for wool weight, keeping faith in our fibre.

“A good percentage of farmers still believe wool will come back. While we have that, there is hope. So many excellent farmers have put so much in with genetics, ultimately they will receive the rewards they deserve, though unfortunately that is just not quite yet,” says Marcus.

His advice to wool growers is consistent.

“I tell all my clients to keep producing the best product they can, then through careful shed hand work make sure the presentation is the best it can be. In a tough marketplace the best quality product is the easiest to sell,” he says.

Wool News: Staff Profile - Kevin Waldron Building relationships is the key

08 April 2021
Leaving school, which was in Oamaru, Kevin Waldron went straight into wool. Forty two years later, and the fibre has been his career ever since.

Kevin joined Wrightson NMA in July 1978 as a trainee wool classer, at first in the store. Times changed however, and with more wool classed in the shed, from 1982 Kevin became an independent wool classer, working farm to farm, building up a classing run of around 90,000 sheep per annum over 19 years. In the off-season Kevin was first a freezing worker, then a sorter at the wool scour; until a work accident in 2000 put an end to such a physical occupation.

In 2001 he joined Reid Farmers as a wool representative, a role he has held since, albeit several amalgamations led to the company evolving into PGG Wrightson.

Covering the Otago region, Kevin says the most important part of the job is ensuring his clients’ wool is well prepared at harvesting.

“We need to make sure the clip is prepared the best possible way, so it makes the best possible return for the grower. Wool preparation can change depending on different market demands. Recently the crossbred wool market has changed, with good coloured wools now earning a premium.

“Our job is to put wool through the selling system efficiently, with no hiccups. This requires good communication with both clients and woolstore staff,” he says.

Building relationships with farmers, shearers, shed hands and woolstore colleagues is the key to the job.

“Developing trust comes from honesty and efficiency. That is the most satisfactory part of the job.

“Otago’s weather produces the best wool in the country, especially crossbred wools. Our climate is not too humid or too wet, which gives our wool the best consistency of colour. However, our busiest time is pre-lamb shearing, which now starts in June, several weeks earlier than it was 20 years ago. Shearing when wet brings challenges. Shearing through pleasant winter weather, with frosty mornings, is fine. However, any wet weather makes it almost impossible to keep the wool clean. Drying wool is also a challenge around the shortest day and can seriously disrupt shearing patterns. Wet sheepyards can easily lead to mud and pen stain in the wool, and a downgraded clip,” says Kevin.

What Kevin reckons the wool sector most needs is increased demand, for strong wool in particular, though he has faith it will happen.

“Growers must be patient. Demand for wool will come again. In the meantime, don’t throw away genetics. When growers are tempted to diversify, they need to be careful. In Otago diversifying usually means putting up cattle numbers or dairy grazing. Farmers need to be ready to put more emphasis on wool for when the market rebounds,” he says.

Outside work Kevin enjoys sport, particularly rugby, cricket and golf.

Share this page