The federal government's decision to classify livestock and wool auctions as an essential service in the face of COVID-19 is welcome, but has strict guidelines.
The sheep and wool industry is taking the issue of the health and safety of our workers and the public with the utmost seriousness.
Shearing needs to continue under strict conditions as well.
The biggest risk for a lengthy closure of our shearing sheds is the very serious animal welfare implications.
Most sheep are shorn once a year, in either late winter/early spring or late summer/early autumn.
Additionally, our sheep are generally crutched at least once a year, which usually occurs three to six months prior to annual shearing.
Both procedures are conducted by wool harvesting crews, mainly in shearing shed facilities.
Specific sheep welfare risks which will arise from not being able to shear sheep include:
- Body, pizzle and breech strike - moisture in long wool can lead to fleece rot and urine and faeces build up on the pizzle and breech, inviting flystrike.
- Wool blindness.
- Lice - long wool is a breeding ground for lice if sheep encounter other infested sheep.
- Casting - sheep not being able to rise from the ground - heavy fleece, wet fleece, increased body weight, last trimester of pregnancy and during lambing.
- Foot abscess - after significant rain, moist fleeces make sheep heavier, and prone to becoming cast or developing foot abscesses when grazing wet pasture.
- Grass seed skin irritation and inflammation.
- Lambs unable to suckle, leading to starvation and hence lamb death.
While the major issue is animal welfare, there is also an economic impact in terms of wool being discounted due to being over the optimum length for processors.
The normal growth patterns of wool see the staple length increase by 8-10 millimetres a month.
Discounts are generally observed when wool exceeds 110mm in staple length and rise with increases beyond 120mm.
This is evidenced in Dr Elizabeth Nolan's (Sydney University Department of Agricultural and Resource Economics) report, 'The Economic Value of Wool Attributes', which show a 13.5 per cent discount (five-year average) for superfine (17.6 to 18.5-micron) above 120mm of 13.5pc.
Based on AWEX wool sale data, up to 42pc of the wool being shorn is 100mm or longer.
Estimates based on the current market indicator, wool production forecasts and key test data, indicate an economic loss to Australian wool growers purely on loss of value due to the discount applied to greasy staple length, of about $17 million should a one-month suspension be put in place.
Wool value would most likely be further discounted with an increase of stain and the higher risk likelihood of fleece rot.