The wool farmers of Mzansi are cautiously optimistic about the world returning to its pre-Covid buzz. Because about 95% of South Africa’s wool clip is destined for the overseas clothing industry, and an uptick in office work and outdoor activities around the globe will hopefully reignite sales.
Local sheep farmers say the past few years have not been easy for the wool and meat producers among them. Apart from the Covid-19 pandemic, the industry also faced biosecurity challenges, stock theft, predators, stray dogs, droughts, floods and fires, which have all affected profits across the value chain.
But Leon de Beer, general manager of the National Wool Growers’ Association of South Africa (NWGA), expects a more positive outlook for the wool industry this year.
“It is anticipated that the world will return to a new normal, with fewer restrictions due to the impact of Covid-19 and people returning to work instead of working from home.”
With workers returning to the office, De Beer hopes to see people buying clothes for work again, which will stimulate the demand for wool and wool-blend fabric, and subsequently also drive up wool prices.
South Africa has and estimated 8 000 commercial wool producers and over 40 000 start-up and communal wool producers, who farm with a total of approximately 15 million animals. Close to 50 million kg of wool, valued at around R5 billion, is produced in Mzansi every year and the sheep that produce it outnumber all other species of livestock reared in the country.
More than 95% of South Africa’s wool clip is shipped to export destinations such as China, the Czech Republic, Italy and others. The value of that wool clip is approximately R5 billion per annum.
Wool market uncertainty
Eben du Plessis, a wool farmer and the vice president of Agri Eastern Cape, agrees about early signs that things were looking up for the wool production industry and adds that favourable, wet weather is good news for sheep farmers.
“We had very good early summer rains in most of the central parts of South Africa. We are very happy about that and the forecasts are looking good for [further] rain, so it will [also] be a very good winter,” he said.
Although uncertainty about the wool market hasn’t lifted, Du Plessis is looking forward to markets reopening and possible upward trends in sales.
“The price of wool is generally determined by the level of international stocks, as well as consumer preferences and clothing trends that drive demand, coupled with currency exchange rates, which is something that one can’t control.”
He feels producers stand a good chance to fetch good profits at auction but cautions that locust outbreaks, floods and recent drought conditions cannot be forgotten. “It would be interesting to observe how this will turn out.”
Fighting locusts in the wake of a drought
The long-term effect of the devastating droughts that farmers had experienced in recent years, are furthermore still being felt. The prolonged lack of rain has led to a shortage of productive sheep farmers in the country, says Du Plessis.
Then came the locust outbreaks in parts of the Free State and Eastern, Northern and Western Cape. “There’s a lot of challenges that the locusts have given us, especially in the areas where it had been very dry. In November and October, these areas received their first rains. The locusts came and ate all the new food.
“It seems like we are winning the locust challenge at this stage [but] there’s a huge possibility there will be new swarms that will come through in the next couple of months or weeks.”
In an earlier interview with Food For Mzansi, Janine Byleveld, operations officer for economics, commerce and natural resources at Agri SA Northern Cape, said they foresee that the locusts will be around until the winter season.
Tips to wool producers
A tip from De Beer to farmers preparing their wool for market is to ensure they continuously produce quality wool, free from contamination, and classed according to the requirements of the international market.
“Producers should also produce wool by implementing practices that are environmentally friendly and socially responsible, and consider animal welfare as a priority.”
According to Keshvi Nair, public relations officer for the NSPCA, intensive and extensive farming methods for livestock that are reared for wool and meat have their fair share of welfare concerns but that the welfare of the animals should be upheld to the highest standards possible.
“They should be reared, kept, sheared, transported and slaughtered in a manner that does not expose them to cruelty and suffering.”
According to Nair inhumane handling, unsuitable transportation, insufficient grazing or supplementary feeding, inadequate protection from heat, cold or weather, dirty and parasitic conditions in feedlots are some of the concerns the organisation has noticed with some farmers, as well as insufficient or a lack of water, poor disease control, a lack of veterinary or medical attention, a lack of emergency slaughter provisions for animals with poor prognoses resulting from disease or injuries, and untrained shearing teams who cause lacerations during shearing.
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