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An evolution in sheep shearing

Posted by Robert Herrmann on 8 February 2017
Robert Herrmann
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The wool industry relies on the shearer as the first stage in the harvesting and movement of wool to its ultimate market. And while this process has been successfully carried out since sheep first arrived in Australia, it is curious that this harvesting system has progressed little over time. The timeline for the evolution of shearing is slow, interrupted with disputes and false starts.

In this blog we look at one innovation with the potential to take wool harvesting to the next evolutionary level.

It took 100 years after the arrival of the first sheep to get to the first machine shearing of sheep in 1882, however the legendary Jackie Howe 10 years later was able to set a record for 321 sheep shorn in a day with the blades!! So, adoption of new technology was slow even way back then.

Jimmy Power was on track to break the record in 1900 for machine shearing, but ended up stranded on 315 sheep shorn as Barenya Station ran out of sheep before the end of the day. It took until 1965 before Kevin Sarre finally bested Jackie’s long-standing record.

The next evolution was the introduction of wide combs, brought out from New Zealand; those that were in the industry well remember the angst over this change to the status quo, with shearing sheds burnt and fights amongst proponents and opposition forces.

In 1990 it looked like a major breakthrough was possible with the first robotic shearing system trialled, followed in 1997 by Bio Clip, a de-fleecing model that was announced as an alternative to mechanical shearing. Sadly, these recent innovations are now consigned to the dust bin, with the millions of investment dollars also gone.

Read the history of wool in Australia

Is this a problem?

To date all of the sheep are getting shorn roughly every 12 months, however this is possible for 2 reasons. Firstly, the influx of Kiwi’s especially from the late 1980’s resulted in a dramatic increase in shearers and shed staff, and this coupled with the declining flock resulting in considerably less shearers required. The question for the future of wool harvesting though is two-fold; is shearing sustainable in its present form – will workers continue to front up for what is widely agreed as one of the most challenging and physically demanding careers in 20 years’ time? And secondly, as more of the flock shift to meat production, sheep will continue to get heavier – what are the OH&S issues for the future?evo2_2210436b.jpg

As Mecardo followers will recognise, we think there is also a more fundamental issue; if any industry is not innovating it eventually retracts and is overtaken. Is the lack of innovation in wool harvesting a symptom of a greater malaise for wool? If tomatoes can now be mechanically harvested, tractors can drive themselves, sugar cane no longer requires cane-cutters, perhaps it is possible to innovate wool harvesting as a start to the next exciting phase for wool and merino’s?

Evolution rather than revolution

One wool industry innovator is Grant Burbidge. Rather than replace his woolshed with a “new” version of the “old” system, Grant decided to look at shearing from a new perspective. So, he
started to design a system that has a lower barrier to entry (able to use workers who are new to sheep and wool, perhaps unemployed young people?) He also wanted a system that required less physical strength (could mean that women could easily shear the sheep?), and he also wanted to challenge the traditional model of wool handling across a wool table.


2017-02-08 Girl shearer.pngThe shearing system that Grant is trialling doesn’t require a sheep to be “dragged” out of the catching pen, and the shearer sorts the wool as they shear. It also doesn’t require bending over the sheep all day, and so far, it has been even possible for a slight 23-year-old girl to easily shear more than 100 sheep in a day.

We have also seen a 23-year-old Somalian refugee who only arrived in Australia 10 years ago, shearing up to 150 sheep in a day (and sorting the wool as he goes!). What a story for the wool industry this could be – “young refugee from war-torn country finds a career as a shearer”.

It’s too early to say that this is the big change or even the final model of this experiment, it’s probably also too early to say if this will be the next innovation in wool harvesting, but Grant is
challenging the status quo, providing answers to some of the wool harvesting issues both present and future; and totally self-funded ($100k plus).

This change ticks a lot of boxes that are required for a paradigm shift; in our view, it addresses a problem that is coming up fast – can we continue to rely on the past model to harvest wool into the future? It also takes a fresh look at the challenge, why can’t the wool be sorted as the sheep is shorn. Finally, it has a passionate supporter who has not only provided the ideas, in-shed training and commitment, but also the investment money.

There have been many innovations in agriculture, all require someone to show initiative and be prepared to stay the distance; Grant Burbidge has these attributes so this could be the start of a positive innovation.

I somehow think that Jimmy, Kevin and Jackie would also be interested.

Topics: Wool industry, merino

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