The recent wool production forecasts stimulated some comment on century (or near century) lows in Australian greasy wool production. Along this line, this article takes a brief look at Australian wool production and sheep numbers since the middle of the 19th century.

There are various historical series for sheep numbers and wool production in Australia. The ABS provides a comprehensive spreadsheet for a range of commodities and animals, running from the mid-19th century. This data has primarily been used in the figures provided in this article, topped up by data from Alan Barnard’s excellent “The Australian Wool Market 1840-1890”.

Australian flock size

Figure 1 shows the Australian flock size from 1860 onwards. The flock size trended higher from the mid-19th century through to the late 1960s, when it peaked around 180 million. Note, however, there were some wild swings around the rising trend. This applied especially to the decade from the early 1890s which encompassed what was then the “Great Depression” of the 1890s (to be superceded by the later 1930s depression). This period also included issues like the spread of rabbits and the Federation drought of 1901 and 1902. The mid-1940s were also a tough time for sheep numbers.

Figure 1: Australian flock size from 1860 onwards.

The latest Australian sheep flock estimate is around 70 to 72 million head, which is the lowest estimate since the first decade of the 20th century, within four years of the death of Queen Victoria. That comment, in isolation, sounds like the flock size is plunging to levels of irrelevance. However, Figure 1 shows that the flock size has steadied during the past decade, with current production under pressure because of drought.

Greasy wool production

Figure 2 shows Australian greasy wool production from the mid-19th century through to now. This series includes slipe wool which is wool from skins. Traditionally this added around 10 to 12% to the volume of fresh shorn wool, which is the volume most discussed in forecasts. However, in recent years, the proportion of slipe wool in total Australian greasy production has accounted for 18% of volumes.

Figure 2: Australian greasy wool production: Mid-19th century to current.

Australian greasy wool production has naturally tracked the trend of sheep numbers over time, helped by increased clean fleece weights. Current greasy wool production levels are not as low as sheep numbers. Greasy production levels are only down to mid-1920s levels, just before sheep numbers started to take advantage of the introduction of superphosphate and sub-clover pastures into the higher rainfall regions.

What does this mean?

Sheep numbers and wool production are under pressure due to drought, after being stable for the past decade. Production as a consequence is touching century level lows. Price levels (meat and wool) are attractive for sheep enterprises. Median rainfall would allow sheep numbers to steady. Better than median rainfall would allow sheep numbers to increase.

The difficulty for the supply chain is joining up a farming system dependent on rainfall with a supply chain trying to run things on a “just in time” basis, without useful greasy stocks.

Key points

  • Sheep numbers in Australia have fallen to levels not seen since the middle of the first decade of the 20th century.
  • Sheep numbers have stabilised in Australia during the past decade, with current lows a function of drought rather than farmers choosing other enterprises.
  • Greasy wool production in Australia is down to levels last seen in the mid-1920s.
  • Slipe wool from skins now adds around 18% extra volumes to fresh shorn wool production. – Andrew Woods, Mercado