Last update: April 10, 2012 12:20:31 PM E-mail Print


Safeguard the Value of our Wool Clip

L. L. Roux


THE average annual wool production of the Union of South Africa is round about 200 million pounds (grease weight), the value of the clip approximating £13 million. The sheep industry is an important source of income. To many thousands of farmers and also to many hundreds of other persons concerned with the marketing and distribution of its products.

The great bulk of the Union's clip is merino wool of exceptional quality; this country's wool is known for its superior handling and softness, which add considerably to its value as a textile for the manufacture of high quality materials. During the past wool season, merino wools of good quality realized from 20 to 26 pence per pound.

Prolonged droughts affect the normal growth of wool, and diseases such as bluetongue and internal parasites cause heavy losses. These adverse factors have been known to reduce the Union's annual wool clip by many thousands of bales. A fall of 1 penny a pound in the price of wool means a drop of over £800,000 in the country's annual income from that product.

Improved methods of management guided by the, results of scientific research have eliminated some of these dangers and lessened the effect of others. Good yields and the best quality will give maximum returns, to attain which management practices best suited to the particular conditions should be employed; Farmers should examine or test their practices periodically; what was satisfactory 5 or 10 years ago may no longer prove efficient.

More recently, and especially during the war period, some other disturbing factors have been influencing the merino-breeding policy. Many contend that merinos lack hardiness, remain stunted, are vulnerable to blowfly attack, and that their wool is ruined by "steekgras". Others consider that the greatest, menace of all is the competition from synthetic fibres. Most seem to agree that the easiest solution is a departure from the merino. The greatest attraction has been crossbreeding, because the crossbred is expected to withstand the adverse factors mentioned above; in addition, mutton and lamb prices have been good, while crossbred wool prices are also at a high level.

There can, of course, be no criticism of the adoption of crossbreeding. What is important, however, is that the farmer must ensure that the change will yield a greater profit and that it will permit of an easy readjustment, should the demand for sheep products revert to previous levels. The present tendency towards crossbreeding was evidenced during past war periods.


Production Ratios

The production ratios computed from data of the ten most important wool-producing countries in the world reveal the following: During; the period 1890-92, merino-wool production was twice that of crossbred wool. Figures for the next eight years reveal a marked increase in crossbred-wool production, due largely to the development of refrigeration. From 1903 to 1910, merino-wool production gained as a result of developments in South Africa, the ratio in 1910 being 1.26 lb. merino to 1 lb. crossbred-wool. During the war period 1914-18 crossbred production was stimulated, although merino wool also showed an increase. In 1920 the ratio was 3 merino to 4 crossbred. From 1920 onwards peacetime demands were- for merino wool, and this increase continued until 1928, from which year the ratio of 1.15 merino to 1.0 lb. crossbred-wool remained fairly constant until the abnormal demands of the present war. The falling off in the demand for crossbreds: at the end of the First World War (1914-18) caused merino prices to rise to nearly four times the value of crossbreds. During- the slump of 1921-22 crossbred prices was only  of merino prices, and only ⅓ of merino prices during the depression of 1932-33. From 1933-39 there was a marked decline in merino prices, which was probably accentuated by the increased demand for crossbreds for strategic reasons. .


Sound Breeding Policy Essential

A point requiring particular emphasis is that, if crossbreeding is undertaken, it must not be haphazard since aimless crossbreeding is always detrimental. A definite breeding policy should be followed. The procedure will depend upon the material available and the conditions of management, especially feed. Where the maximum feed can be made available, as under irrigation, large-framed, good wool-bearing, highly fertile, good milking ewes such as Romney Marsh-merino or Dorset Horn-merino crossbreds should be mated to rams such as the Southdown. This mating will produce a good quality, rapidly growing lamb capable of reaching a marketable live weight of 60-65 lb. at the age of 90 to 110 days. Under good veld conditions, even with some supplementary feed such as green cereal pasturage, the same sheep material may give only 80 per cent success. The nutritional requirements of this crossbred type of ewe are higher than those of the merino. Merino ewes are not entirely unsuitable for crossbreeding, but they must be well grown and roomy, and be kept in good condition; otherwise they will not rear rapidly growing lambs capable of reaching 65 lb. within, say, 3½ to 4 months or even 5 months. Rams of most of the improved mutton breeds are suitable for use on merinos, .the Southdown being specially recommended. Purebred mutton-breed rams are subject to diseases, especially of the lungs; hence grade rams, such as ¾-bred Southdown-Blackhead Persian, are advocated. All lambs should be sold when they attain a marketable weight.

If; under arid and semi-arid conditions, one or other of the hardy non-woolled breeds can be made available for Iamb and mutton production, this procedure is preferable to the use of merinos because of the greater hardiness and higher fertility of the former. In this case Southdown and Dorset Horn rams are recommended. For reasons given above, grade rams are also recommended in this system of crossbreeding. Where conditions are "hard" grading up with the improved mutton breed will not prove a success because grades above the half-bred level lose hardiness. Half-bred rams may be used continuously in order to establish a type having the desirable characteristics of the half-bred, namely, hardiness, good fertility, and good milk production.

The most destructive step to take is to use rams of such breeds as the Blackhead Persian, Ronderib Afrikaner, etc., in merino flocks purely with the object of introducing vigour and hardiness. These non-woolled breeds introduce hair and coloured fibres, which ruin the clip. Some farmers consider that they will obtain greater size, hardiness and vigour by the introduction of one or other of the large framed improved white-woolled mutton breeds. The resulting half-breds may reveal hydrid vigour, but they are crossbreds and as such produce crossbred wool. Grading up with the mutton breed reduces what stamina the half-bred might have had, and, if the veld is not capable of maintaining the merino, it will be still less able to support a large-framed grade sheep. The alternative is backcrossing the half-bred with the merino. The resulting grades are not likely to be an improvement on the original merino if the level of the environment and management has not been improved. The use in merino flocks of half-bred rams of Corriedale and Palworth origin is definitely not recommended.

Fortunately, certain merino breeders are realizing that incorrect systems of breeding and wrong methods of management have produced poor doers and uneconomic producers with low fertility. It is gratifying to see that they are now aiming at the evolution of types of merinos which are more suitable for their specific conditions and that many are beginning to realize that health and vigour are essential if high wool yields are to be attained.


Future of Wool

At present no one can say with any great certainty what the future holds for wool. Wool is one of the most important staple commodities of international trade and much of its future undoubtedly depends upon international trade agreements and financial arrangements. The opinion has been expressed that "..the inclusion of wool in a large-scale, international buffer pool scheme operated for a wide range of primary products might be of more than sectional interest by helping to bring about that degree of general world economic stability which is an essential prerequisite for post-war prosperity". Wool is the, best textile product that will be available in abundance after the cessation of, hostilities. Wool will play a most important part in clothing and protecting the large masses of people who will be devoid of even the simplest necessities of life. As soon as labour and machinery can be made available, the several millions of bales of accumulated wool will be put to good use.

Competition from synthetic fibres cannot be passed over lightly. World rayon production increased from 104 million pounds in 1923 to 2,381 million pounds in 1940. Of the four most important fibres (cotton, wool, rayon and silk), rayon and wool represent 13 and 12 per cent respectively of the world's total production. According to the opinion or some, the greatest influence of the competition of synthetic fibres will be experienced only about 5 years after the war. Experts in textile matters emphasize the need for thorough and constant research in every aspect of the production, marketing, and manufacture of wool in order to ensure the production of a product of the highest possible textile quality at a competitive price, to eliminate unnecessary expense in handling and marketing, and to discover efficient methods of manufacture of new light-weight materials of attractive design.

Maintaining the present prestige of South Africa's wool production and guarding the Union's merino wool clip against the introduction of harmful features such as hair, coloured fibres, poor quality, etc., seem to be the proper contribution of all producers towards the establishment of wool among the greatest textile fibres of the post-war era.



Farming in South Africa 19