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Livestock

Creating value: Sheep producers can add dollars at shearing

Written by Christy Martinez
According to Larry Prager of Center of the Nation Wool in Belle Fourche, S.D., because many sheep are run on rangeland in Wyoming, which is a contamination-free environment, and because the state has good genetics, that equates an ideal situation for quality wool.
    “Those are the first things you have to have – environment and genetics – and Wyoming is in great shape there,” says Prager.
    However, he says there are several strategies that sheep producers can implement to capitalize even further on shearing day in 2012. With wool prices at $1,200 to $1,500 per bale in 2011, Prager says it’s worth paying attention to add that extra value.
    “We assume wool is like a bale of hay, and we treat it similarly, but really it’s a textile product, and it will be processed, so little things on shearing day can impact the value significantly if they’re not done properly,” states Prager.
Sheep, wool should be sorted
    “Most of the shearing crews in Wyoming are professional, but sometimes you’ll get into situations on shearing day that are less than ideal,” says Prager, commenting that, among other less-than-ideal weather situations, wind can be a big influence on wool quality in the Cowboy State. “I’ve been out on windy days, and as the wool was shorn it was blowing away and compromising wool preparation efforts.”
    He notes that some of those preparation efforts include removing tags or stains and doing some sorting for length and texture to maximize value as the wool is packaged. Prager says sheep can also be sorted for length before they’re shorn.
    “The classic sheep operation in Wyoming shears ewes the first of March and yearlings in May,” he says. “Different lengths should be sorted and packaged separately, because they go to different processing lines and, quite often, represent different values.”
    Rambouillet and Targhee sheep should also be separated from sheep with coarser-wool genetics at shearing, because of the difference in processing between classes of wool.
    Bruce Barker of Great Plains Wool Company in Big Horn says most people in Wyoming run similar types of sheep, but there might be a few black-faced bucks or ewes.
    “Work those sheep off, and shear them last, to minimize contamination with colored fibers,” says Barker.
Who will sort?
    Prager says classing and skirting of wool is typically taken care of by the shearing crew at the ranch level.
    “The warehouse used to do it years back, but as more people became knowledgeable they were able to do it themselves, and it’s easier for the crew to do it, and in some cases the ranchers do it,” he says. “It’s something the rancher and the crew need to agree on how it will be done, and it does take some organization. Working in the open, in the winds of Wyoming, working with loose wool can really complicate the quality of the job.”
    Barker says to be sure to package all types of wool separately, including bellies, tags, sweeps and black-faced.
    “Make sure they’re all sacked separately, because each type has a different use, and if the shearing crews take it upon themselves to do it on their own sorting they may mix the bellies with the black-faced,” says Barker.
    “In the past, many ranchers would end up being in the back of the corral pushing sheep up the chute, but shearing day is an important day for your ranch income anymore,” continues Barker. “If you have 1,000 ewes and they shear 10 pounds a piece, that’s 10,000 pounds at three dollars a pound. It’s not one of those things where you can stand back and let a shearing crew make the decisions. You may know the guy who runs the crew, but you don’t know the shearers and wool handlers, and unless you’re there to tell them how your product is prepared, they will do it the easiest, fastest way they can.”
Use caution with paint
    Speaking of concerns from some about washing paint out of wool, Prager says foregoing paint brands altogether, whether on shearing day or any other time of the year, is not practical for Wyoming situations where sheep mix together. However, he says research indicates that the difficulty of cleaning paint from wool depends on how the paint has been applied.
    “As long as producers use the minimum amount of paint to get the sheep marked and still get the job done, it’s ok,” says Prager. “It makes good sense to use caution – the concern is that they may add something to the branding paint, or brand with paint that’s too thick, which makes wool hard to process.”
Packaging is key
    Barker also recommends putting wool in new nylon bags, because of appearance and marketability.
    “Eighty to 85 percent of U.S. wool is exported overseas, and when those buyers come over to look at wool, it’s amazing how they go straight to the wool in the new, white, clean wool bags,” he notes. “If wool is in dirty, used bags they think there’s something inferior about it. It’s the appearance.”
    So far in the 2012 shearing season, Barker says weather conditions in most of the state have caused freezing at night and thawing during the day, which can make for dirty bales if they’re rolled through the mud on their way to be loaded.
    “Have some pride in your product,” he states.
    Barker also recommends marking bales on both ends, and not the sides.
    “If you write it on the side, that side could end up on the ground,” he says. “If we’re coring and pulling samples for a customer, a producer definitely doesn’t want us to pull a sample from a bale that’s not top-of-the-line.”
One opportunity to add value
    “Many ranchers rely on someone farther down the supply chain – the warehouse, buyer or broker – to try to fix whatever problems are in the wool. We all have the tendency to think that someone farther down the processing chain will take care of it, but wools are typically sorted before processing, and that mentality loses money in this economic climate,” comments Prager. “Any challenge that develops on shearing day – any issue that comes up that could be a problem – starts costing money at the ranch level.”
    “The bottom line is that wool values will be as high this year as they have ever been,” says Prager. “During shearing, the producer has one opportunity to prepare his wool clip on that day, and that’s the one opportunity he has to add value. Wool can be value-added that day, or, by taking a few shortcuts, value can be lost.”
    Christy Martinez is managing editor of the Wyoming Livestock Roundup and can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

Shear Texas sheep separately
    “There’s no question that there are a number of truckloads of Texas sheep coming to our trade area,” says Larry Prager of Center of the Nation Wool about the northbound migration of sheep. He adds that it’s important they’re kept separate at shearing time.
    “First, we expect they’ll have finer wool, and that may bring more value at the ranch level. It’s likely that Texas wool will represent more quality,” he explains. “Secondly, we don’t know, in some cases, when they were shorn a year ago, and they may need to be classed separately, because they might be a bit shorter.”

Superwash brings opportunity
    Speaking of the superwash process, a value-added early stage wool process that preshrinks wool using a chlorine-based process, Larry Prager of Center of the Nation Wool says it brings order and buyers into the U.S. wool marketplace.
    “Prior to having superwash in the U.S., those buyers purchased wool from New Zealand and Australia. Because the superwash process came to the U.S., it’s now more efficient for them to source their wool here,” says Prager. “It’s one more piece of the puzzle that strengthens the U.S. wool industry.”
    There is only one major wool processing mill in the U.S., and Prager says the addition of superwash to that facility has certainly attracted more customers, both large and small.
    “Many customers will be small operations that are very specific in their product lines, and that’s something we can supply, and that will mean extra dollars for the producers,” he says. “More demand equals more opportunity.”