South Africa’s wool industry and wool quality has undergone some radical changes over the past 100 years, one of which is the increasing focus on rigorous selection and the correct breeding policy by producers in a bid to increase the financial sustainability of farming enterprises. This has led to the industry breeding well-balanced sheep with a good wool-to-meat ratio.

Stockfarm spoke to a few of the experts at BKB and OVK, both of which boast more than a century of wool industry experience, to find out how wool quality in South Africa has changed over the past century.

A rosy picture

Heinrich Victor, operational manager for fibre at OVK, believes the improved uniformity and quality of wool fleece is due to the strong emphasis placed on better breeding values in recent years.  

Years ago, he says, producers tended to focus on the production of meat rather than wool (70% meat and 30% wool). “If you were to examine the quality of a sheep’s fleece in the past, the differences would be clearly noticeable. The traditional wool on a sheep’s flanks was of excellent quality and differed from that on its neck, while the wool on its lower hind legs, or breech wool, was often much stronger.

“Today fewer lines are produced. The lots auctioned are therefore bigger and more objective, instead of producers having to divide their clips among several smaller lots. The quality of unblended wool from pure breeds, such as the Merino or Dohne Merino, has also improved considerably.”

Wool prices have been rising since 2000 thanks to wool’s increased value and improved quality. It reached new heights in 2016/17 and peaked in 2018 when the highest monetary value ever for wool crossed the R4 billion mark.

Modern technology

Heinrich says wool producers nowadays have access to improved technology and can progress much faster in terms of breeding. “There are numerous opportunities for procedures such as laparoscopy, artificial insemination, embryo flushing, and the import and export of semen.”

South Africa supplies nearly 2% of the world’s wool. For that reason, greater emphasis is placed on the classing of clips as contamination, or foreign fibres or materials in wool, can lead to sizeable economic losses.

Heinrich says the National Wool Growers’ Association (NWGA) contributes greatly to the promotion of wool, especially in the communal regions and Lesotho. “Commercial producers in the emerging regions still send in poor-quality wool, but only in isolated cases. You need to consider that while wool from crossbreeds will always be present, blending must be avoided.”

External factors

According to Heinrich, climate change and factors such as drought are becoming a daily reality. This can adversely affect the quality of wool.

“Animals’ immune system may also come under pressure. Nutritional stress can lead to fibre breakage. One of the most important precautions is to keep animals free from diseases and parasites.”

He believes that drought affects the weight of wool, as it becomes much finer and lighter when nutritional stress is present. “Wool may also be heavily soiled due to the dry and dusty conditions. Drought conditions are still prevalent in large parts of the country, which resulted in a reduction in wool volumes.”

Pleated sheep such as this used to be known as ‘thousand-rand pleated sheep’ at auctions.

Global trends in the wool market

China is South Africa’s biggest market in terms of spinning wool and buys most of the shorter wool, whereas the longer type of spinning wool is in greater demand in Europe.

“However, different countries will always compete with one another. Fashion trends also determine the demand for a specific type of wool. Shorter wool fetched excellent prices a while back because of China’s moderate winter and their low demand for long wool for fashion,” he explains.

Heinrich says the trade war between China (which buys 70% of the world’s wool) and the United States has a major influence on the current evening out of the market. Luxury commodities are the first to come under pressure when the economy undergoes a crisis.

Evolution of sheep

Jacobus le Roux, BKB’s general manager for corporate marketing and public relations, says much has been done in South Africa since the 1930s to improve the wool and conformation of Merino sheep.

The Rambouillet Merino, which was a moderate to full front type sheep, as well as the Vermont Merino, which had a large amount of wool and wool oil due to excessive pleat development, was prevalent in the past. Later, the Wanganella type began to dominate. Many Merinos and crossbreeds competed in the wool and meat market from 1955 to 1960.

“The Merino and Merino wool breeds bred from the Merino, have changed over the last 100 years from predominantly wool-bearing animals to sheep that must meet current economic requirements. Emphasis is therefore placed on reproduction to ensure both high-quality meat and wool,” says Jacobus.

A total shift in emphasis

Emphasis on the amount of wool has decreased, with increased focus now being placed on quality, reduced fibre thickness and better staple length.

Isak Staats, BKB’s general manager for wool and mohair, says the first major change noted in wool in the last 100 years, was a considerable decrease in fibre thickness. “About 40 years ago, the strategy was to have as much skin as possible on a sheep in order to produce enough wool. The average micron for auction rams was 28. So, you had an overly pleated ram with a lot of strong wool. The variation in the wool was nevertheless huge, with a margin of seven microns on either side.”

In terms of quality, the following changes occurred over the years:

  • The first major change was an improvement in the fibre thickness distribution (standard deviation) of wool. Today, producers breed a much more even wool type, or fibre width, across the body.
  • Today fibre thickness can be measured scientifically.
  • Thanks to fibre thickness measurement, the prickle factor (percentage of stronger fibres that can irritate the skin) can be measured.
  • For the past 20 years producers have been breeding sheep with longer, faster growing wool.
Today’s producers prefer an environmentally adapted, plain-bodied type.

“The myriad sheep breeds in the world include fine, medium, long or carpet wool types,” says Robert Scott, who conducts wool training at BKB.

According to him, wool quality is determined by traits such as a regular and distinct crimp. The wool must be soft and free of hair and coarse, kemp-like or coloured fibres. The following traits must also be considered: Elasticity, plasticity, compressibility, resilience and crimp curvature.

Role of objective measurement

Technology has changed so much over the last century that clips are currently tested using objective measurement, which is an integral part of clip preparation, marketing and processing.

Robert says objective measurement uses scientific methods to determine the clean yield, plant material and fibre thickness of greasy wool. “The average fibre diameter is a key test for wool. It determines which product can ultimately be made from wool.”

The value and superiority of wool as textile fibre is basically determined by six objective (measurable) physical properties: Length, fineness, tensile strength, condition or clean yield, quality and appearance.

Subjective assessment includes the following traits: Crimp quality (regularity and evenness), wool colour, weathering and clean yield. – Carin Venter, Plaas Media

For more information, phone Heinrich Victor on 066 222 8002, Jacobus le Roux on 082 411 6316, Isak Staats on 082 495 0628 and Robert Scott on 082 774 8763.