Dust penetration and loss of production due to drought has cost Australian woolgrowers an estimated $450 million despite the price of wool per kilogram increasing in the past three financial years.
While droughts and dust storms are nothing new, many wool buyers, producers and industry leaders are now concerned breeding direction may be playing a part.
Wool buyer Scott Carmody of Wool Trade Consulting, Sydney, crunched the numbers and noted the high financial impact could be slightly downplayed when values were attributed, because wool was currently averaging $1.40/kg higher for the season up to March 20 than it was in the 2016/17 season.
As a result the financial loss to lower yields calculates at $127 million.
But national wool production across the three years was also down by 17.83 per cent or 293,993 million kg (mkg) of greasy wool, according to Australian Wool Testing Authority data projected to March 1.
In NSW the figures greasy wool was down 27.28 per cent at 94.461mkg, which added with lower yields was estimated to cause a $78 million loss in value. NSW yields, normally 66.6pc average and on par with Victoria, this year were estimated at 63pc, however at present that's more likely to be 61.3pc.
My Carmody said it was money off growers' plates.
"They are shipping a good part of Australia out with their wool," he said.
"In effect a lot of the weight is dirt and not clean wool."
Mr Carmody estimated yields in the western NSW river country would normally average 65 to 67pc, but this season had fallen to 50pc.
"Inland, they would be lucky to be averaging 45pc," he said.
"There's a loss of income, but it's production and yield based because growers are still getting paid whatever the market rate is per clean cents a kilogram."
...this is the worst yield in wool I've seen and maybe it's the breeding direction we are going.
Mr Carmody noted environmental impacts were nothing new.
"But this is the worst yield in wool I've seen and maybe it's the breeding direction we are going," he said.
"Are there more open and longer stapled wool sheep types about these days which may allow more dust penetration? My grandfather always had greasy tipped wool which stopped the dirt going down the staple. The cross-fibres have been taken out of the wool as well, so that's taken the density away and dirt is able to penetrate more."
Mr Carmody said there were a number of factors within the Merino breed at the moment.
"When things are good, obviously they are a good wool, but in the more dust-prone areas will open, longer stapled wools exasperate the problem?" he said.
Schute Bell Badgery Lumby Goulburn manager Mark Taylor has seen an increased amount of wool now testing lower in yield than usual due to the prolonged drought across the state.
He said in some cases a portion of clips had yields as low as 30 per cent in fleece lines.
"Those clips would come from the central tablelands and western areas of NSW due to bare paddocks as well as farmed paddocks," he said.
The amount of dust within the wool has a direct bearing on price because lower yields reduces the value woolgrowers receive for their greasy wool.
"If a 18.5 micron fleece line would yield 70pc then on current values that line of wool would be worth around 1260 cents greasy," he said.
"However, with a yield of only 60pc then the wool would only be worth 1080 cents greasy."
When the animal was placed under extreme pressure, Mr Taylor noted that the wool was not showing its true characteristics such as micron, quality, style and strength which would add to more discounts.
"Just on style alone the difference in price for a fine wool Merino fleece line could have a discount of 200- 260c/kg clean due to the high dust penetration," he said.
"Dirt will wash out, however due to extreme dust penetration I would imagine there are very few mills in China that can handle the volume of drought affected wool coming in to be scoured and the likelihood would be the washing bowls could be slightly slower than usual processing the wool."
G. Schneider Australia Pty Limited managing director Tim Marwedel said average yield was a requirement for most deliveries and contracts.
"As the volume of low yield wool has increased, it makes it more difficult for buyers and processors to build batch's to specification," he said.
"They then need to be more selective on lots with low yield and that influences the price."
The amount of dust can reduce the processing ability of the fleece but the quality of the machinery was also important, according to Mr Marwedel.
"Most commission combing mills will have a higher combing tariff for lower yielding wools," he said.
"This means buyers must pay less."
Henry Armstrong, Pemcaw Merinos, Dunedoo, offered a stud breeders perspective.
He said being able to identify sheep with dry wool was relatively easy but trying to identify and breed sheep with good nourishment that suits the specific conditions they were running in was harder.
"When I say good nourishment I don't mean the sheep that display that typical 'black tip' as a sign that you can attribute to them having good nourishment," he said.
"I have seen 'black tip' ewes this year that from the outside you would say are well nourished, when taking a closer look they are ewes that should probably have been culled out at classing due to the over nourishment and high levels of suint in the wool."
Mr Armstrong pointed out if sheep had the black tip throughout the last 12 months there was a high chance it could cause management problems in a wetter year.
The traits he attributed to good nourishment were good lock structure and skin type.
"Without those essential characteristics the balance between good nourishment/wax and suint will be wrong," he said.
Nourishment describes the sheep's way of protecting the fibre from the elements, therefore the fibre should be nourished evenly from the skin to the tip, he said.
"A lustrous clear wax puts life into the wool and has no sign of suint through any part of the staple," he said.
"Often sheep shorn in late spring and summer display a drier tip if shorn in the cooler months and without a doubt nutrition is the most important limiting factor to the level of nourishment in wool and it affects the growers bottom line."