The shearer shortage has wool producers looking for out-of-the-box, alternative ways to harvest wool.  Biological defleecing could be it.

Key points: New trials have shown promise for “chemical defleecing”

The wool industry has invested $1.4 million into development

Farmers are desperate for new ways of harvesting wool amid a shortage of shearers

Biological or chemical defleecing has been in development for more than a decade, but recent trials suggest it could actually be viable.  Research body Australian Wool Innovation (AWI) has just invested $1.4 million into a three-year project with the University of Adelaide and says the technology “has real potential to be a game changer”. A compound creates a weak point in the wool fibre, making it easy to harvest without losing the entire fleece in the paddock. A uniform fleece coat left underneath the weakened staplezone on a sheep treated for chemical defleecing. Emeritus professor Phil Hynd from the Department of Animal and Veterinary Science at Adelaide University said they needed to find the ideal dose that would allow the fleece to be removed easily and work out whether to deliver it as a feed additive, an injection, or a drench. “What we’ve come up with is an entirely different approach to previous attempts like Bioclip,” he said. “Our approach is to create a weak zone in the wool, allow that wool underneath it then to grow out for several weeks, then harvest that with a machine that doesn’t require any skill to use or use an automated machine.”

Farm trials ‘show potential’Initial farm trials in 2021 using merino sheep showed that they were able to hold on to their fleece after receiving the treatment. “We were amazed to find that the wool stayed on the sheep under normal grazing conditions for up to 10 weeks,” Professor Hynd said. The sheep were grazing in small paddocks in normal conditions with lots of movement in and out of yards. “And there was no difference between the treated and the untreated sheep in the loss of wool,” he said. “That was the light bulb moment, and we realised that this was a real possibility.” Mr Laurie says wool harvesting is a major priority for the industry. Chair of Australian Wool Innovation Jock Laurie said it was critical for the industry to continue to invest in shearing training in the short term as well as biological defleecing and robotic technology. “We’re prepared to invest big licks of money in this if we can find ways to give growers options to be able to get the wool off,” he said.

Wool growers desperate for alternativesMr Cay says he supports research into biological defleecing. The cost of shearing has shot up for growers like Oliver Cay who runs merino sheep at Bungarby in south-east New South Wales.Shearing costs had increased by more than 80 per cent in the past few years, he said. “Three years ago, I was getting a full contract job done for $7.50 [per sheep], then it went to $9, then $11, and now this year it was $13.70 for a full contract job,” he said. COVID meant that New Zealand shearers couldn’t come to Australia, and that has led to a serious shortage, which is driving the push to find alternatives. “As the pressure comes to continue increasing shearing wages, it will open up all sorts of alternatives that have been in the too expensive basket.” Challenges aheadThe wool industry is backing biological defleecing as an alternative to shearing.

There are still significant challenges ahead for biological defleecing, particularly the engineering issues around harvesting the wool post treatment. There is also more research needed to look at animal welfare, reproduction issues, and whether the treatment would work on crossbred sheep, which means shearers will not be out of work for a while. Professor Hynd said there was a fair bit of research that still needed to be done to prove chemical defleecing was a viable alternative. “This is exciting, this has real potential, but it ain’t here yet … you’re gonna need shearers for the next five years.”

Biological defleecing trials produce promising results in ‘potential game changer’ for wool industry – ABC News