We have noticed a lot more chatter in the past 12 months from wool producers regarding the increased difficulty experienced over the latest shearing – unreliable teams, much later finish to shearing and generally a frustration with organising most important task for the year.
Facts and figures around the shearing industry are difficult to pin down, so let’s start with the anecdotes and comments we are hearing.
Rumour, innuendo & hearsay.
We have been told, “Shearers are getting older, contractors are finding it more difficult to get shearers, drugs are a bigger issue than ever before, and trainee shearers are not staying in the industry”. While no evidence exists to prove or disprove these assertions, experienced operators are concerned that there is more than a grain of truth in these.
Pick one anecdote, “shearers are getting older”. Evidence is not readily available; however, a simple test would be to check the age of shearers in your wool shed today, and benchmark against the average age of ten years ago. When I did this in our shed, we found that it was the same shearers ten years on, so in fact the average age was plus 10! It is too scary to then project forward another ten years.
Mecardo has also weighed in, in our article An Evolution in sheep Shearing we looked at the progress (or lack of progress) the shearing industry has made, up to and including the latest shearing platform system. Mecardo also produced a shearing timeline beginning with the 29 sheep that survived on the First Fleet, through the 1880’s of the Jackie Howe blade shear record of 321 in a day and the invention of the Wolseley machine shearing plant and to the 1990’s of robotic and chemical shearing experiments. What stands out is the lack of any break-through change to the wool harvesting system.
What are the facts?
There were more than 180 million sheep shorn in Australia in 1991-92, although this fell to about 73.7 million in the last financial year. While the number of sheep more than halved in this period, shearer numbers fell by a factor of five.
Drugs are an increasing problem, and along with the obvious human misery and animal welfare concerns, the eventual outcome of an industry with a growing drug culture is decline. This is not isolated to the shearing industry, but the hard work, specific OH&S issues, remote conditions and team environment are all components of the wool industry that make drugs in the woolshed more problematic.
What are the solutions?
As usual there is not one quick fix, rather a range of improvements and innovations to provide a remedy. The challenge will be that if this issue that seems to have come to the fore in recent times is gathering momentum, the need for remedial action is urgent. That will be difficult.
However, a strategic approach will be a start. In the past, an influx of Kiwi shearers (and shedhands) filled the vacuum of Aussie workers leaving the industry. Could the next wave come from the refugee population? One example of a successful transition from “destitute to shearer” is Abe who was given his chance by Grant Burbidge using the innovative shearing platform Grant has developed.
Probably one difficult point needs to be elevated about this iconic industry, the environment many work under in the shearing industry is abysmal, with an acceptance of working conditions that would not be tolerated in any other industry.
Shearing contractor Brenden Sullivan articulated his concerns around OH&S compliance when quoted in the Weekly Times article, “The pastoral industry is third world, it has not improved.” This might be a bit harsh on those wool producers who have improved their workers conditions, but it needs to be remembered that a team only spends a couple of weeks at each shed so all employers need to provide acceptable working conditions – an industry approach is required.
In most wool sheds a lack of modern toilets, dining rooms, change and shower facilities has been accepted as normal by many wool producers. If the industry is serious about attracting workers then it must provide acceptable conditions; the job is hard enough and the hours long enough without having to put up with poor conditions. The fact that most woolsheds and the amenities have not changed, been updated or modified in the past 50 years is pathetic. These needs addressing ASAP.
The bottom line.
This is a time of great prices for wool and sheep meat, rarely have we seen a time where the flow of money back to sheep farms whether merino or crossbred has been greater.
This improved situation should in normal conditions see an increase in the flock, reversing the decline from the heady days of the 1990’s when 180 million sheep roamed the country.
If we are currently experiencing problems getting circa 70 million sheep shorn, the problem will only be compounded if the flock grows. This will weigh on existing and potential sheep producers when deciding if this is the industry for them, or will farming alternatives become more compelling?