A RIFT is deepening between Australian Wool Innovation (AWI) and the Sheep Co-operative Research Centre (CRC) that may threaten efforts to negotiate funding for a five-year extension to the CRC’s research.
Issues at the centre of the fall out include commercialisation of new wool quality assessment technology – the ComfortMeter and HandleMeter – and the recurring row over funding the information nucleus flock (INF).
The CRC’s funding runs out in 2014 and a steering committee – led by former Sheepmeat Council of Australia president Kate Joseph – is working on behalf of the industry on an application to the federal government for an extension to 2019.
Last week, a proposal on priority research areas designed to improve productivity through the supply chain was supported at a meeting of Sheep CRC participants.
These include developing new automated measures for animal well-being to improve flock health; identifying new and alternative markets for sheepmeat; and continuing work on identifying genetically superior animals to improve flock productivity.
But Sheep CRC chief executive James Rowe believes comments made by AWI chairman Wal Merriman and chief executive Stuart McCullough at the organisation’s AGM last Friday were not fair.
“AWI has been at the table (on negotiations) but when you see comments like that made by the chairman and CEO you don’t have a lot of confidence they will be supporting an extension that has genetics as a major component,” he said.
“You don’t need to be a rocket scientist to see it won’t be easy.”
At the heart of the ComfortMeter and HandleMeter issue is a disagreement on how best to commercialise the two technologies.
Both tests are designed to build demand for trans-seasonal, next-to-skin knitwear. The ComfortMeter counts the number of fibres protruding from a fabric that can cause discomfort and is ready for commercialisation. The HandleMeter separates fabrics based on extensibility, stiffness, surface roughness and friction by passing samples through a metal ring.
The Sheep CRC wants to commercialise the ComfortMeter and HandleMeter at the same time because it believes the two machines work best together.
But Mr McCullough was not willing to take the CRC’s approach because in his view, the HandleMeter was not ready for widespread use and already had competition in the market. Dr Rowe disagreed, saying the HandleMeter was nearly ready for commercial use.
Mr McCulllough said AWI had written five commercial plans since December 2009 with four rejected by the CRC and the fifth, from August this year, containing too many caveats to be progressed.
“So even though we have a lot of research funds in this, if we are not allowed to commercialise the ComfortMeter in isolation to the HandleMeter then all bets are off and we’ll walk away,” he said.
AWI chairman Wal Merriman said while AWI funded part of the CRC and the CRC funded programs, AWI believed both meters should have had commercial partners from the outset.
“It’s the new way we do business. These projects have to have a commercial partner and that guarantees commercial success,” he said.
“The way they did the ComfortMeter and HandleMeter is they did not have a commercial partner and that’s the difference in the way we do projects.”
The CRC also disputes comments made by Mr Merriman at last Friday’s AWI AGM on the second stage of INF.
At the meeting, Mr Merriman reassured woolgrowers the nucleus flock was “alive and well and living with MLA”.
He said the only wool components involved in the second stage of the Information Nucleus Flock were staple strength and lifetime productivity of the sheep and that these traits would be continued with new projects under AWI.
But Dr Rowe said he did not believe AWI had been fair with its assessment of the project, in particular that Mr Merriman’s comment were a “deliberate oversimplification to make the point that he sees no value in it for Merino breeders”.
He said it was difficult to see how AWI’s proposed genomic projects – as outlined in an information sheet provided by the organisation and available on its website – would deliver any further benefits that the current project would not.
“To start off again, I can’t see how you’d justify it. The costs are enormous,” he said.
Dr Rowe said AWI’s statements ignored the potential value to woolgrowers of having breeding values of traits, such as parasite resistance and reproductive efficiency (number of lambs weaned), which were difficult to measure.
It was also important to understand how these affect adult fleeceweight, wool quality (fibre diameter) and correlations between wool and meat parameters.