Dirty wool can cost you dearly

An untidy shearing shed is the reason why plastics, twine or even wire end up in wool bales. This not only seriously damages the reputation of a valuable South African farming export, it can also result in huge claims against buyers, processors and you, the farmer – specially if it can be traced back to your farm. Here’s how to avoid this problem.

To avoid contamination of the valuable niche product that merino wool has become, shearing must be done according to the standards set by the National Wool Growers Association (NWGA). Farmers can be severely penalised for bad shearing-shed management, as it can cause great damage and unnecessary expenses along the processing and valueadding chain.

This problem was addressed as early as 1906, when the now obsolete National Association of Wool and Mohair Growers was formed to create a classification system to class and pack wool systematically. The aim was to counteract the bad reputation South African wool had in the late 1800s and early 1900s on the London markets, when farmers even packed stones with their wool to make the bales heavier!

Today classification is monitored by brokers, buyers and wool processors with Cape Wools SA responsible for the management and coordination of the process. The main contaminants are polypropylene bags and baling twine. These break up into thin fibres that get caught up in wool and blemish fabrics because they can’t absorb dye.

Worrying, too, is black hair or short, stiff, white wool from crossbred sheep (kemp) that mixes with merino wool, as well as dog hair. Processors don’t want these coloured fibres, especially not in pastel material. Kemp in wool clips have also become more common over the past three seasons. The source is mostly crossbred breeds kept for fat-lamb production, so always shear purebred sheep first.

Other faults wool buyers look for are fleeces that are not classed uniformly in terms of length or quality, dirty pieces in the main lines, urine or dung-stained wool in outsorts, paint or marking ink in the wool, and foreign objects, including cigarette butts, in the bales.

Wool brokers use metal detectors to pick up pieces of metal, wire and wool hooks before the wool is sold, but it is not so easy to detect plastic fibres. Hard objects in a bale can damage core-sampling and wool-processing machines, whereas kemp can spoil metres of fabric as it only shows up at the final stage of processing.

Should an intact piece of a polypropylene bag – sometimes (wrongly) used to separate different lines of wool in the same bale – be discovered, the grower can be fined between R1 500 and R10 000 depending on how far the wool has moved along the chain. When more than one line is packed into a bale, separate the lines with a paper divider – no other material.

Keep in mind there is increasing pressure on the wool industry to ensure pesticide-free wool products reach the market. Here’s how you can ensure a clean clip:

■ Educate the shearing team and workers about the dangers of contamination.

■ Clean the shed thoroughly before shearing starts, and store any tools, bolts and other metal objects.

■ Minimise possible contamination by animal hair, feathers and baling twine.

■ Ensure the holding pens are clean. Provide a bin with a lid for cigarette butts and other rubbish.

■ Keep out dogs or other animals.

■ Use a rubber rake rather than an ordinary broom on wool in the shearing shed.

■ Never use baling twine in the shearing shed, not even for hanging tools or other gadgets against the wall.

■ Make sure there is enough shelter to keep the sheep dry and therefore free of dirt. Where possible, cut long grass around the shed to prevent their necks and bellies getting wet due to dew or rain, or wait until the veld has dried before bringing the flock in. Moist wool should never be baled.

■ Prevent contamination from seed (such as cockle burr), remove all paint or colour brands from sheep before shearing, and crutch sheep with severe dung and urine-stained wool.

■ Ensure there are enough workers for the shearing process. Allow, for example, for a cook for the shearers, sweepers, piece pickers, balers and individuals to assist with getting sheep in and out.

■ Provide appropriate wool-sorting facilities such as tables, wool bins, piece tables and so on.

■ Provide shearers daily with fresh, strong disinfectant so that every time they shear a sheep, the shears can be disinfected to prevent the spread of sheep lice. Infestations can reduce the quality of the clip.

■ Sorting of fleeces is easier if the flock is sheared in age groups, such as lamb hoggets, young (two-tooth) sheep and old ewes.

■ Discuss double cuts as well as the unnecessary wounding or cutting of sheep upfront with the shearers.

■ Wool stained with branding ink, tar, urine, dung, blood or paint, or discoloured by fungi or chemicals must be removed before shearing, packed separately and marked as “Brands”. Avoid as far as possible any stock remedies such as wound sprays that can stain wool.

■ Remove all blood-stained wool during the shearing process and ask shearers to remove pieces of skin cut off during shearing. Skin pieces quickly become dry and hard, and can damage carding machines.

■ Top knots and cheek wool can contain hairy fibres and must be packed with the lox. Coloured fibres are often found around the horns and should not be packed with bellies or pieces.

■ Always turn new wool packs inside out and shake out any loose fibres outside the shed. Make sure all hooks and press spikes are sharp and use only the prescribed number (nine) of bale hooks. Blunt spikes can break or force fibres from the wool pack into the wool.

■ Marking ink should be applied in such a way that it doesn’t seep through the bale.

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