Consumers around the globe are placing greater value on products that meet certain requirements, with emphasis on aspects such as traceability as an effective identification system, as well as ecological and economic sustainability.

The wool and mohair market has also been under the microscope and is now considered a specialty or niche market, rather than a commodity market as it was known until some ten years ago.

Ethical wool production

Jan Louis Venter, an advisor at the National Wool Growers’ Association (NWGA) in the Free State, says that consumers who prefer wool clothing have very specific requirements. According to him, they seek good quality products that have been produced in an ethical way, accompanied by evidence that all production processes are acceptable and sustainable for the future.

The shorn wool of a Merino Landrace sheep. (Photograph: Anja Hattingh)

“The concept is not new,” he says. “A good example is the fruit industry, where no products may be exported until the required audited standards have been met.”

Heinrich Victor, marketing manager of fibre at the OVK, notes that fruit producers must be at least GLOBALG.A.P. certified before products can be exported.

He also believes that fibre certification will play an even greater role in future. “It is imperative for South Africa to follow the regulations, as the bulk of the country’s fibre is traded on an international platform, with only a very small percentage processed locally – mohair to a greater extent than wool.”

A changing market

Jan Louis emphasises that it is imperative to apply biosecurity measures to ensure that animals remain disease free and to keep unwanted diseases from entering herds and spreading further.

“For example, newly purchased animals must be kept separate for at least a month to ensure that new diseases do not end up in a healthy herd. Quarantined animals, for example, cannot be kept in adjoining camps.”

He believes that biosecurity, or the lack thereof, can cause great damage to the South African wool industry and refers to two diseases that can run riot. “Anthrax or Rift Valley fever outbreaks can literally bring our country’s wool industry to a halt. This emphasises the need for biosecurity measures and, equally important, making every employee aware of this fact.”

Although certification is not yet compulsory in South Africa, producers must ask themselves whether they want to compete internationally in the future.

In addition to biosecurity requirements, consumers want to know how the wool is produced. Jan Louis paints a picture of the modern consumer: “It is usually a person who has a ‘user conscience’ and who does not simply accept or take ordinary advertising seriously. He or she wants sufficient evidence that a product is in fact ethically produced.”

Quality assurance

Globally there are numerous systems, or niche segments, aimed at obtaining quality assurance for wool and having it certified accordingly. Examples include ZQ, Abelusi, the Sustainable Cape Wool Standard (SCWS), the Responsible Wool Standard (RWS) and the more recently integrated Responsible Mohair Standard (RMS).

Good shearing practices are part and parcel of the biosecurity measures in the fibre industry. (Photograph: Kerryn Ross, Farmgirl Photography)

An annual fee must be paid to utilise these systems, but it is usually an affordable amount compared to the income a producer received from a clip. Jan Louis recommends that producers consult their wool brokers.

Producers usually want to know what type of benefits these quality assurance systems offer. “The biggest advantage of such a system is that it guarantees market access for producers amid a rapidly changing marketing environment,” says Jan Louis. “If there is a premium on wool sales, it is an added bonus for the producer.”

Sustainable Cape Wool Standard

Cape Wools SA developed the SCWS as the national standard for the South African wool industry. Leon de Beer, general manager at the NWGA, mentions that in the coming months the organisation’s production advisory service will focus on assisting wool producers during the SCWS evaluation process and decide on the adjustments that must be made to meet the standard’s requirements.

“Cape Wools SA will promote the standard as a proudly South African brand,” says Leon. He adds that the SCWS will also meet stringent international standards.

RWS and RMS

The two standards for certification recognised by most markets worldwide are the RWS and RMS. The purpose of both these certifications is to promote sustainable farming and to offer traceable products to the market. Although certification is not yet compulsory in South Africa, producers must ask themselves whether they want to compete internationally in the future.

Riaan Marais, media and communications officer at Mohair South Africa (MSA), says the development of the RMS over the past two years would not have been possible without the co-operation of all the role-players involved.

“Textile Exchange, an international leader in the development of sustainable standards in natural fibres, was one of the key role-players and was also involved in the development of both the RMS and RWS. To develop an effective standard, we needed the input of the entire value chain, which is why Textile Exchange’s help was so invaluable. Their ties with the world’s most influential brands ensure that consumers have no trouble accepting the recommended RMS.”

Good shearing practices are a vital aspect of biosecurity measures in the fibre industry. (Photograph: Theuns Botha)

Riaan adds that it is encouraging to have the support of mohair producers. Most of them agree that sustainability is essential to the future of the industry. “Fortunately, the concept of sustainability is not new and has been at the top of the South African mohair industry’s list of priorities for the past decade. Now we have to take it a step further.”

Pillars of quality

In South Africa, the RWS and RMS processes are handled by brokers such as BKB and OVK. The broker who markets a client’s product is usually requested by the client to perform an audit on their farm based on the following three pillars:

  • Animal welfare: Free from hunger, thirst and malnutrition, free from discomfort by providing adequate shelter, free from pain, injuries and illnesses, free from fear and distress, and free to engage in natural behaviour. Animal health and disease management are crucial aspects of animal welfare and include the quarantine of animals and responsible use of livestock agents.
  • Responsible administration and resource utilisation: The sustainable use of land, water and grazing, as well as responsible control and management of invasive plants, wildlife and predators.
  • Social ethics and labour relations: Respecting human rights and the ethical use of labour within the framework of labour legislation.

From a broker’s point of view

As far as RWS certification is concerned, Heinrich says there is currently still a premium payable on certain lines of certified wool at public auctions. “When certified wool comes under the hammer, buyers’ interest is usually piqued, and certain lines of wool tend to fetch higher prices. Nevertheless, producers must remember that the quality of their wool still determines the price.”

The question producers will ask themselves in future, he says, is not whether they will be able to generate a premium on their wool, but whether their product will be worth exporting or not. “Giovani, which is a prominent wool processor in Italy, said at an international wool forum last year that in the future standards will be even more important than a product’s quality.

It has become much easier for a buyer or consumer living in China or Europe to find out exactly what is happening on a farm in South Africa.

“Although a sweeping statement, it underlines the seriousness of sustainability and traceability of a product. It gives consumers peace of mind knowing that a product is certified and that there were no questionable practices during the production process.”

Isak Staats, general manager of wool and mohair at BKB, agrees and says it is important to remember that wool and mohair are delivered to a first world market and should therefore be up to standard. “It is a small world in terms of transparency and traceability,” he says. “It has become much easier for a buyer or consumer living in China or Europe to find out exactly what is happening on a farm in South Africa.”

Isak adds that biosecurity is much higher on the agenda today than it was a few years ago. “World trade, for example, is more sensitive to the prevalence of disease. Like the rest of the world, South Africa will have to be proactive if we are to survive the modern world’s new trends.”

Good shearing practices

“The sheep shearing process is becoming a costly affair, but it remains a necessary and important industry skill,” says Isak. He explains his statement: “We regularly see how wool prices come under fire in South Africa, but it is still a rewarding industry. It is much cheaper to shear sheep locally than elsewhere. In Australia it costs around R100 to shear a sheep, while it costs around R17 per sheep locally.”

Although there is a constant shortage of trained sheep shearers in South Africa and shearers from Lesotho are mostly used, there are still many emerging producers, as well as those in communal farming areas of the Eastern Cape, who benefit from shearing schools and training. The training the NWGA provides is invaluable, while brokers such as BKB as well as OVK’s sister company, Sinethemba Mafama, are also doing their part.

Practical tips

Good shearing practices are part and parcel of the biosecurity measures in the fibre industry. Izak Klopper, manager of shearer training at NWGA, shares some practical tips:

Prior to shearing

  • Schedule shearing so that it does not clash or compete with other farming activities.
  • Speak with your shearing contractor so he knows exactly what your requirements are and how many sheep you can or want to shear per day. This way, a suitable shearing team can be assembled as the contractor will know exactly how many shearers, wool workers and classers are needed.
  • Move the sheep in remote camps closer, cut out paint marks and remove burweed (boetebossie) and cocklebur (kankerroos) from the wool.
  • Clean and tidy sheep-handling facilities, shearing sheds and shearing quarters.
  • Disinfect the shearing shed beforehand with formalin, Jeyes Fluid, Virkon S or F10. This way, your shearing shed will be fume free before the shearing team arrives.
  • Provide enough wool bins and tables.
  • Service the wool press beforehand and train the staff who will be pressing the wool bales.
  • Employ enough labour so that the shearing process can run smoothly.

When the shearing team arrives

  • Communicate the rules that apply on the farm to the shearing team and make sure they understand it.
  • Give the team leader a tour of the shearing quarters and explain everything of importance.
  • Provide disinfectant for shearing equipment.
  • Make sure the shearers wear clean clothes when commencing work.
  • Explain to the head classer how you want the wool to be classed.

During the shearing process

  • Empty sheep before shearing. Sheep with a full stomach experience discomfort while sitting, their breathing can be laboured and they can kick unnecessarily, which can cause injury on duty as well as damage to shearing equipment.
  • Replace the disinfectant in water troughs daily.
  • Plan the working day to cover four shifts of two hours each.
  • Provide labour to bring sheep closer to the shearing point if there are no individual kraals for each shearer.
  • After the first shift, estimate the shearing rate of the team so that the process of moving sheep closer can be planned.
  • Shearers must report sick sheep, baling twine in wool and black wool.
  • Treat any shearing wounds as a priority.
  • Do quality control (individual inspection of kraals is helpful).
  • Always shear young sheep first to prevent disease transmission from older to younger animals.

Prevent contamination

  • Remove all baling twine and feed bags from the shearing shed prior to shearing.
  • Shearers may not sleep in the shearing shed.
  • Keep dogs out of the shearing shed.
  • Shear the pure-wool breeds first.

For more information, contact Bonita Francis, NWGA, 082 413 6416 or nwga@nwga.co.za; Izak Klopper, NWGA, 082 446 2162 or ijklopper@telkomsa.net; Riaan Marais, Mohair SA, 041 581 1681 or riaan@mohair.co.za; Heinrich Victor, OVK, 066 222 8002 or heinrichv@ovk.co.za; and Isak Staats, BKB, 082 495 0628 or isak.staats@bkb.co.za. – Carin Venter, Stockfarm