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Beyond the Bale : Feb - Mar 08
By Kellie Penfold When sheep producers set out to breed a style of Merino suitable for both wool and meat production, an animal that also didn't need mulesing wasn't originally high on the list of breeding objectives. But today, that unexpected bonus in the multi-purpose Merino (MPM) is allowing a group of woolgrowers to phase out the procedure without having to seek an alternative. It is allowing them to respond quickly to a growing retail trend -- the ethics-conscious consumer. By producing sheep with no wrinkles, flystrike has become a non-issue for these woolgrowers, and Dwain Duxson, who runs the 'Glendemar' MPM stud with his father Ken and brother Ben, says it is now three years since many MPM producers have had to mules sheep. The MPM is now filling an order for 20 tonnes (clean) of non-mulesed Merino wool for the North American activewear market and has another two orders waiting to be filled for other countries. This first order is being filled with wool from 20 MPM producers across a wide geographic spread, using a track- and-trace system implemented by independent contractors employed by the MPM group. The orders are the culmination of a determined program to develop multi-purpose Merinos that are finally able to also match traditional Merino bloodlines for wool cut. And the emergence of this improved multi-purpose type comes just when the industry is under market pressure to find alternatives to mulesing. The first specific order for non-mulesed Merino wool is comparatively small, but Dwain says this has allowed the development of a transparent verification process and allowed for branding. The group has developed a non- mulesed brand for swing tags and marketing campaigns. He says that it is a test order that gives the group a chance to impress the client with the quality of wool produced on MPM sheep. The growers are supplying the wool through their brokers, who will hold it for MPM. They are paid under an agreed contract pricing system, which is set every six months. Currently, a third of the 150 MPM sheep producers have ceased mulesing altogether, without using any alternatives, and all are expected to be able to stop mulesing by 2010. "Some producers are in the process of taking the next step with their breeding, so in one or two years their sheep will be where they need to be." He says that for others, mulesing is still needed as part of their sheep-management program, but all plan to step away from the practise by the 2010 commitment. "We've moved away from the debate as to whether mulesing is cruel or not and the issue now is how do we supply Australian Merino wool to a market which is driven by consumers demanding ethically grown fibre," he says. "We want to make the Australian Merino wool industry a better industry, and therefore we have to supply the product the market wants." The emphasis in MPM breeding is given to skin quality in the belief that the skin is the most crucial element in wool quality, quantity, strength and yield. An uncomplicated and wrinkle-free skin also seems to enhance fertility and the lambs' ability to grow faster and finish better. For MPM ram breeders, all sheep are classed off-shears and categorised into five different skin groups. Top skin quality has good shine and lustre, and is soft and wrinkle-free, while at the other end of the spectrum the skin is thick, harsh and dull -- characteristics MPM producers are now avoiding in their flocks. After 150 years of breeding for wrinkles, to make such a dramatic change involved strict culling and extensive embryo transfer programs. Dwain says at the beginning it was all about chasing the best skins with some small sacrifices in wool quality before refining the genetics. "The only way to describe it was that the flock was like a piece of paper and we just had to keep folding in the edges," he says. "We were starting from a mainly traditional base and back then we didn't have the tools we have today -- quality rams and ewes and technology like MerinoSelect -- to help us find the extreme traits we were after." ú adult ewes cutting 7.8kg of wool with a 19 micron average, lambs were producing 17.5 micron wool. The production goals by 2012 are: ú 140 per cent weaning rate; ú 90 per cent of ewes ready for mating at eight to 10 months; ú a wool cut of 7.9kg with a micron of 18.5 in breeder ewes and 17 in lambs; ú wethers turning off at six months for $100/head (if the market holds up); and ú shearing every six months. Dwain says one of the greatest benefits of MPM is that it has provided guidelines for producing consistent products across all climate and environment types in Australia. "When putting together special orders like non-mulesed wool it makes it relatively simple because we can find a similar style of wool from all parts of the country," he says. "The exciting thing about all this is working with a network of progressive people who want to make their sheep businesses work and who haven't heard of the word 'can't'. It puts us at an exciting point in time." ú More information: Dwain Duxson, 03 5744 3782, firstname.lastname@example.org, www.multipurposemerinos.com.au Has the multi-purpose Merino's time arrived? The uncomplicated skin that is linked to good fertility and fast weight gain in multi-purpose Merinos also means these sheep do not need mulesing 5 GENETICS BEYOND THE BALE Ben Duxson and one of his multi-purpose plain-bodied Merinos that need neither mulesing nor drenching. "We've moved away from the debate as to whether mulesing is cruel or not and the issue now is how do we supply Australian Merino wool to a market which is driven by consumers demanding ethically grown fibre." b-- DWAIN DUXSON It has taken MPM six years of extensive embryo transfer and artificial insemination programs, and considerable fine- tuning, to develop the production base, which has evolved into a whole new type of Merino enterprise. By 1996, one of the breeding flocks at 'Glendemar' was achieving the following : ú 110 per cent weaning (to ewes joined and naturally mated); ú 50 per cent of ewe lambs ready for mating at eight to 10 months (at 45 kilograms live); ú shearing every eight months; ú wether lamb turn off at eight to 10 months at $76 a head; and PHOTO: BRAD COLLIS
Feb - Mar 08 Supplement
Apr - May 08