Australia’s Merino Farmers Under Pressure to Manage Farms Sustainably

Key industry group promises to focus on improved animal welfare and better land management initiatives.

Last December, the Australian Wool Innovation (AWI), a nonprofit that represents about 60,000 Australian woolgrowers, released the Wool 2030 Strategy, a 10-year plan for the country’s wool sector. Taglined “Australian wool: The world’s premium sustainable fibre” the report attempts to appease rising consumer concerns around sustainable methods of fiber production

Australia cultivates 70 percent of global apparel wool and a colossal 80 percent of the world’s superfine wools, including merino.Photo by Christina / Flickr.

Australia cultivates 70 percent of global apparel wool and a colossal 80 percent of the world’s superfine wools. Among these categories, one product emerges the undeniable hero – merino wool.

Classed as a renewable resource, merino wool has an enduring lifespan, is recyclable, biodegradable and offers natural health benefits. Yet these positive attributes do not guarantee an absolutely guilt-free production cycle.

Raising sheep for wool, as with other forms of animal agriculture, requires a sizeable amount of resources, including land for pasture (that is often overgrazed). Sheep farms can add to greenhouse gas emissions as the animals release methane into the atmosphere, much like cows, and runoff from the farms can contaminate waterways.

Then there is the question of animal rights. Many of Australia’s merino sheep farms have received criticism in the past for their mishandling of animals, especially for the practice of “mulesing” — removing the loose, wooly skin near a sheep’s buttocks, which is prone to becoming moist with urine and contaminated with feces. The procedure is done to prevent blowflies from laying eggs in the folds. Once hatched, the fly larvae feed off the flesh of the sheep, a condition called flystrike, which can be fatal if left untreated.

Mulesing is usually carried out on lambs, often without any painkillers, when they are between 6 to 10 weeks old, along with other painful “marking” procedures such as tail docking, castration, and ear tagging. According to the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (RSPCA), in 2017-18, an estimated 11.6 million merino lambs were marked with the majority of these lambs being mulesed. In January 2020, ABC News reported that, The Australian Wool Board (AWI), originally said it would end mulesing by 2010 but the practice is still common among wool farmers in the hotter regions of the country.

But the tide is turning. In recent years, many major fashion brands and chain stores, including Woolworths, H&M, Target, and Kmart have said they will stop using wool that comes from mulesed sheep.

In the face of such market-driven pressure and growing criticism about these practices and the environmental impacts of sheep farming, the AWI has come up with a 10-year strategy that, among other things focuses on improved animal welfare, better land management initiatives, and investment in innovative research and science.

Many wool farmers in the country have already adopted some of these initiatives. Andrew Rolfe, a seventh generation woolgrower of Kenilworth Grazing enterprise, 50km south of Cooma, New South Wales, for instance, has been trialing more sustainable livestock management plans. He uses containment feeding. The “sheep are fed in paddocks which are smaller than normal and where they are fed a full ration” Rolfe explains. “This is a very sustainable practice,” due mainly to the minimization of land erosion and maximization of healthy livestock feeding, he says.

Classed as a renewable resource, merino wool has an enduring lifespan, is recyclable, biodegradable and offers natural health benefits. Yet these positive attributes do not guarantee an absolutely guilt-free production cycle. Photo courtesy of AWI.

Ben Duxson, a sixth-generation woolgrower based in Wimmera, Victoria with his family. Glendemar farm undergoes strict audits to ensure its production methods are sustainable. Photo provided.

Rolfe also uses pasture budgeting, a technique of balancing livestock forage demand to available pasture land as a way of conserving and enhancing grasslands, improving forage production, and restoring soil quality. His budgeting aims to maintain 70 percent ground cover at all times. As part of this technique, only a limited number of animals are put out to pasture at a time. “This is roughly the scenario we ran last year, some ewes went on adjistment [temporarily moved to another property for grazing], some were fed in the paddock, and some were fed in containment,” he explains, demonstrating the malleable nature of his approach. “Having these options allows producers to maintain their stock, minimize damage to pasture base and leave them in a good position to rebound when good seasons return,” he says.

The wool industry is also trying to find ways to minimize invasive procedures on sheep, including exploring alternatives to mulesing. This includes research into pain relief to offset pain associated with various husbandry procedures, the development of a flystrike vaccine, and “genetic and genomic approaches enabling a move in the long term to [breed] sheep that are less prone to flystrike,” says Dr. Sonja Dominik, group leader of Sustainability & Welfare, Agriculture and Food at the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization (CSIRO), an Australian government agency.

Animal rights activists, however, say this isn’t enough. “Mulesing has not even been banned,” says Aleesha Naxakis, spokesperson for People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA).

“The truth is, as long as animals are commodified and used for their wool, their lives will still be miserable,” she says, adding that consumers are increasingly demanding cruelty-free products.

“It’s consumers that hold the most power.”

Ben Duxson, a sixth-generation woolgrower based in Wimmera, Victoria agrees. “We farm now with the consumer in mind,” he says. “This is quite different to previous generations where they produced [wool] to sell as a commodity.”

Duxson’s operation, Glendemar Farm is a Responsible Wool Standard (RWS) certified merino seedstock business. RWS describes itself as, “a voluntary standard” that aims “to provide the industry with a tool to recognize the best practices of farmers; ensuring that wool comes from farms that have a progressive approach to managing their land, practice holistic respect for animal welfare of the sheep and respect the Five Freedoms of animal welfare.”

Once a farm is certified, RWS then follows the wool right along the supply chain, up until the retailer. This process allows growers to connect with new customers. Duxson appreciates his new connections to international brands. “Quality assurance programs offer the supply chain a guarantee that they are producing products to the highest possible standard. Transparency of what is happening on farm and the ability of the farmer to explain their farm practices is important,” he says.

Glendemar farm has just completed its fourth farm audit, and has seen improvements every year, he says. “We are good at what the RWS certification requests of us, but we can always get better and become great at what we do,” Duxson says.

However, for more merino wool farmers to adopt ethical animal husbandry and sound land management techniques, they need a price assurance for their product. Most Australian woolgrowers’ livelihoods depend on rising and falling wool prices at auctions and the resulting income uncertainty can create obstacles for them to invest in these efforts.

In neighboring New Zealand, outdoor clothing brand Icebreaker is signing woolgrowers onto 10-year supply contracts to help eliminate such pressures. In its transparency report Icebreaker states that it wants to allow growers to invest back into their land, livestock and business.

New Zealand merino stud breeder Steve Satterthwaite, who with his wife, Mary, runs Muller Station farm in the Awatere Valley in Marlborough, says their farm’s contract with Icebreaker provides them with income stability. For Satterthwaite, this has led to investment in higher levels of pest and weed control and allowed the growers to enhance their breeding program. “The related ZQ brand best practice requirements make us more aware of ethical farming practices,” he says.

“Definitely contracts are the way forward. Because we know where our wool is going and who is using it and how environmentally sustainable it is, we take much more pride in producing it.”

Perhaps if the Australian merino wool industry could widely adopt similar alternate selling options, it could enable even more merino farmers to enhance sustainable farming practices for this wonderful, biodegradable and natural fiber.

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