South Africa’s wool industry is one of the largest in the world, producing up to 3% of the global wool supply and nearly 12% of the world’s apparel-specific wool. There are close to 10 000 wool producers in the country, employing up to 40 000 people as farmworkers, sheep shearers, and wool handlers.
Leon de Beer, general manager of the National Wool Growers Association (NWGA), explains that there are many aspects to wool farming, including proper infrastructure, certification, skilled labour, and correct classification.
“On a farm for wool, you need proper shearing infrastructure where the wool sheep can be shorn and where the wool can be classed. Then you need a wool press so that you can put the wool into a wool bale,” De Beer says.
Wool bales can weigh between 100 and 200kg and it takes at least 50 sheep to fill up a bale, he adds.
“You need quite a number of sheep to fill the number of bales [required] to access the formal market.”
In this guide on wool classification, written by De Beer, he emphasises how the country’s wool outputs need to be of a consistent, high quality standard, and how that can be achieved by following standard practices.
The list of criteria that is important for wool classing, includes the following:
- Make sure there is enough shelter to keep the sheep dry.
- Provide appropriate wool sorting facilities (such as tables, wool bins, piece tables, etc).
- Where possible, cut long grass around the shed to prevent necks and bellies getting wet due to dew or rain.
- Use only new prescribed wool bales and bags.
- Modernise shearing facilities as far as possible by having a shearing platform ready to shear, meaning that catching or holding pens should be as close to the shearing floor as possible.
The importance of correct wool classification
According to De Beer, making sure that your wool is classified correctly, is vital to your bottom line. He adds that this aspect of wool farming also requires skilled labour.
“The shearers that sheer the sheep need to be trained, qualified, and skilled to sheer the sheep properly without injuring them. And then you need wool classers who also need to be trained so that they know exactly how to class the wool and put the different qualities together.”
Important qualities for wool classification include length, strength, fibre diameter, and tensile strength. De Beer says that part of the sheering process includes removing wool that has been contaminated with urine and dung, as well as the wool on the back of the sheep that is eroded by the sun.
“You have various parts of the fleece that is classed separately from each other. So, all the parts from different sheep that are similar, you try and put them together at farm level, based on the length and the fibre diameter and the strength, so eventually all the same wools are in the same bale.”
Quality crucial in wool industry
De Deer says that the wool classer classifying your wool on farm level is adding value to your produce and any type of contamination of the wool can lower the quality of the product.
“If you don’t class the wool properly, the wool with the most inferior quality in the bale will determine the price. That’s why you remove the inferior wools and try to class the quality wools with quality, and the lower quality separately from [those] so you have quite a long range of the different wool qualities. There are [also] quite a few different classes. Lambs’ wool is different to adult sheep’s wool, for example.”
In this guide from Cape Wools SA, the different wool types are outlined as Merino-type wool, white wool, and coarse white and coloured wool. The wools are then subdivided into locks wool, lambs’s wool and hogget wool, amongst others.
“Some qualities of wool are good enough to put in socks and so on, but other, better qualities might be good enough to put in a suit, or even finer wool that you can wear next to skin as it doesn’t scratch you.”
Accessing the wool market
De Beer explains that once the wool leaves the farm, the farmer ships the wool to a wool broker, who facilitates the sale of the wool at auction. The auctions are arranged by Wool Exchange of South Africa in Gqeberha, where the price of the wool is heavily influenced by the global market.
“The wool broker prepares the clip for the auction by taking a sample from the wool and sending it to the Wool Testing Bureau. The bureau tests the wool for its different qualities, and when those results come back, the wool buyer’s bids at the auction are based on those results. [The buyer purchases] wool according to specifications for what the end product is.”
There are seven wool buyers listed with Wool Exchange of South Africa, including Modiano SA, Lempreiere SA, and New England Wool, and South Africa’s wool industry is primarily an export industry. De Beer says more than 98% of the “clip” is exported, with the country’s biggest market being China. India, Europe, and Egypt also lucrative markets.
In April 2022, China banned livestock product imports from South Africa due to the foot-and-mouth (FMD) pandemic, a ban which included wool. The ban has significant impact on the country’s wool industry.
“We now need to convince them again that we might export our wool, our protocols are still in place and that is a process that needs to take place on a diplomatic level, but also government involvement, so government-to-government discussions with China.”
De Beer says, however, that the industry is looking at setting up facilities to activate the local market.
“We are looking at the processing of wool locally so that we can mitigate the risk in terms of our wool exports, and it will not be huge volumes. It will be more for a niche market.”
Getting your wool certified
To be competitive, farmers are obliged to adhere to the Sustainable Cape Wool Standard (SCWS), De Beer explains. In order to be certified, Cape Wool SA administers farm assessments from trained production advisors.
The SCWS is based on four elements of wool farming, namely animal welfare, environmental custody, social ethics and labour relations, and general business or economic aspects.
“The standard is all about production that is sustainable, that is environmentally friendly, that looks after animal welfare and is also social responsibility. We have auditors that go to a farm and even take photographs as proof of proper shearing infrastructure, proper housing for the shearers and the farmworkers, proper natural resource management, etc.“
De Beer says that about a quarter of the wool output in the country is certified, which is the highest volume of certified wool in the world.
“We are also busy rolling this programme out for the emerging sector so that they can also have a system according to which their wool is certified.”
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