Composite wool seen as 'major risk' to industry

TONY BENNY
Last updated 10:50 16/12/2013
Halfbred beeder Eric Laurenson is worried about wool quality.
TONY BENNY/Fairfax NZ
WOOL WORRIES: Halfbred beeder Eric Laurenson is worried about wool quality.

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Composite sheep breeders trying to cash in on improved returns for mid micron wool are putting the industry at risk, says halfbred breeder Eric Laurenson.

"They'll label it mid micron and in a sense I guess it is but the quality won't be there because the strong wool component isn't based on good English long breeds like your romneys and leicesters and lincolns.

"It's based on composites and it's texels, finns, east friesians and poll dorsets and all sorts of things that they've put together now to make up a sheep."

Laurenson and his father before him have bred halfbred rams for 50 years on a stud at Paerau in the Maniototo, now under a manager. He now lives near Fairlie, where he also has a romney stud.

"I put the romney over the merino to breed the first cross halfbred and those first cross rams go over my halfbred ewes. We've had stabilised halfbreds in New Zealand for 70 years."

Like corriedales, the halfbred is a dual purpose animal, producing mid micron wool as well as meaty lambs, unlike composite sheep that were bred with only meat in mind, with wool something of a byproduct.

"To be blunt, none of those sheep that they brought in from overseas were ever brought in to improve the wool on the sheep in New Zealand.

"The finn was brought in for fertility, the east friesian was brought in for its milking ability and the texel was brought in for carcass and early maturing and hardiness."

With mid micron fibre now more than matching fine and coarse wool for returns, Laurenson said composite breeders are adding merino to the mix in a bid to produce more valuable fleeces.

"They think I can just put a merino ram over them and sadly they're calling it a halfbred and it's anything but that."

The problem, Laurenson said, is that the composite-based wool lacks the qualities sought by manufacturers.

"The fibre they're getting off these sheep is brittle, full of black fibres, it's medullated [hairy and air-filled] and it's bloody hard to make a decent yarn out of it.

"If you go further down the line, those people will market their wool as a halfbred or mid micron and the end user, the manufacturer who's been buying quality mid micron wool for the last 20 years and making it into, say, upholstery for couches and chairs, all of a sudden gets a consignment made up of this composite-type halfbred.

"The yarn won't perform anywhere near as well as the traditional yarn and he'll think, 'Oh s..., the mid micron wool they have in New Zealand is stuffed now,' and walk away from it and either pay less or go somewhere else to buy it."

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Laurenson believes composites have already ruined the coarse wool industry in New Zealand and fears the same will happen in the mid micron sector.

"We've gone from sick to terminally ill for the strong wool sector because it's just got this proliferation of composite all through it now. It's hard to make a decent fibre out of strong wool in New Zealand unless it's fat as your arm and strong as a tugboat."

Wool should be branded by description so buyers knew exactly what they were getting, said Laurenson. He's approached PGG Wrightson, Elders and MerinoNZ about branding and believed they were supportive.

"If guys do want to breed their wool that way, then it's got to be branded correctly and not branded halfbred because that's just one shoe fits all-type. If they're going to put it over a merino, they can call it a merino down or merino composite but the last thing they should be calling it is a halfbred.

"The people with the composite wool should be getting $2/kg and the people with the traditional English long breeds that still have some quality should be getting $6. But the way it works in New Zealand, everyone's just getting three or four dollars."

- The Press

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