March 15, 2004
By Ross McSwain
A quarter-century ago, wool growers attempted to use polypropylene bagging for packing their harvested fiber. The argument was the poly bags would keep the wool cleaner and dryer and the bags were cheaper than traditional burlap bagging. The experiment did not last too long before wool combers, spinners, cloth manufacturers and others were voicing concern about fiber contamination. The poly bags would shred easily when punctured by a forklift machine, thus allowing the clear plastic fibrous pieces to infiltrate the wool. The result was damaged cloth, added costs extracting the contaminant, and damaged reputations.
"As you know, we have been fighting the problem of polypropylene contamination for years. As a textile industry we have probably done ourselves a disservice by merely mentioning the problem and not being more proactive in driving it back to the people we buy our wool from," said Tim Almond, wool buyer for Burlington Industries Wool Co. in North Carolina.
Almond recalled times in the past when he and other buyers would just mention to a wool grower and warehouseman that "they had a poly problem," then proceed to discuss other things. The cost of removing the contaminant was absorbed by the company.
"Now, profits are small, if any, and every cost is put under a microscope," Almond said.
Polypropylene is the No. 1 contaminant in American wool, and the problem was a primary focal point during a meeting of a special Sheep Shearing Task Force set up by the American Sheep Industry Association's Wool Council. Source of the contamination is polypropylene twine used to tie hay bales, feed sacks and cheaply made blue polypropylene tarpaulins sold at discount stores and used for covering hay and feed, and for draping over frames to provide shade for shearing crews and others working in livestock pens. The hay twine comes in a variety of colors from white and yellow to red, blue and green, with the most common being the orange-colored polypropylene fiber. There are a whole host of other colorful sources of poly identified that are commonly found, contaminating wool.
According to Almond, the major problem at Burlington is a U. S. government fabric made of 100-percent American wool of 23 to 23.5 microns.
"Every inch of this fabric is made from U.S. produced wool," Almond said. "During calendar years 2001-2002 the company produced approximately 600,000 yards of the cloth. It took us one hour for every 100 yards to correct vegetable matter, polypropylene and other defects."
During calendar year 2003, things changed for the worse, Almond said. The firm produced approximately 325,000 yards of the fabric and it took two hours to correct with polypropylene being the culprit.
"To put that in dollar terms, this is an extra $50,000 to remove polypropylene as well as any long vegetable matter. For calendar year 2003, this works out to approximately 750,000 greasy pounds. On a greasy basis this cost works back to approximately 6 cents per greasy pound," he said.
Almond, as well as other U.S. wool buyers, agrees that the best place to stop the poly contamination problem is the source. However, the makers of the hay twine have not been receptive to change, thus wool producers and shearers provide the next line of defense.
"Producers and shearers need to work together to solve the contamination problem in the corral and year-round," said Jim Bristol, chairman of the Shearing Task Force.
Bristol's group of industry leaders have recommended that an educational program be started for shearers and their crews about the problem of wool contamination when they use the blue poly tarps.
"It's also necessary to inform producers about other sources of poly contamination that can occur throughout the growing season, such as the risk of contaminating wool with polypropylene by using tarps to cover haystacks," Bristol stated.
According to ASI International Wool Director Rita Kourlis Samuelson, the Wool Council is working with Woolsacks Inc., a major U.S. supplier of nylon wool packs, to investigate the cost and supply of lightweight, durable nylon tarps. Although contamination may still occur with nylon tarps, it would be less obtrusive since nylon can be dyed with wool.
What else is being done by wool manufacturers to reduce the cost of having to deal with contaminants?
Dan Gutzman, with Pendleton Woolen Mills of Portland, Ore., and a member of the task force, said Pendleton started purchasing fine wools from selected producers in 1992. These particular wool growers had started classing and skirting programs patterned on a system that had been developed in Australia.
"I still have a group of producers who are continuing to do this. We pay a premium for their wool," Gutzman said. Buying the wool from these selected producers has reduced contamination problems by 80 percent," he noted. However, Pendleton still has problems with wools from paint-branded sheep raised in states other than Texas and New Mexico.
Gutzman has just returned from a three-week trip to Australia where he made inquiries concerning the availability of Aussie shearers and to learn how the Australian wool industry is dealing with these related problems.
He reported that the average age of Australian shearers is 43, and shearing schools are reporting renewed interest among younger men. Getting the men to come to the United States will be difficult, he said, because of the difference in the exchange rate of U.S.-Australian dollars.
"An Australian shearer would be taking a 20-percent cut in pay to come to the U.S. now," he said.
Almond, of Burlington, also noted that his firm has gone to a sole supplier for its wool supply needs.
"We no longer have the ability to source wools from various warehouses or suppliers and blend them together. We now need the ability to know exactly who and where the wools came from. With one supplier we now have the ability to claim for our loss. If we have problems we will know exactly who to go back to when we require financial reimbursement.
"Over the years we have swept the financial burden under the rug, but we intend in the future to regain some of the loss from the source. We have tried to create an awareness throughout the industry. Maybe the awareness will come about if we get in someone else's pocketbook," Almond said.
Rick Honaker of San Angelo, Texas, wool buyer for Anodyne Inc., noted that preparation of wool fleeces has slipped as producers take as many shortcuts as they can to keep costs down.
"We have had a lot of problems because of polypropylene contamination, and this year seems to be the worst," Honaker said.
Honaker believes much of the contamination problem could be reduced substantially if producers would work more closely with their shearers. "We can do better at the shearing pens," he said.
Darrell Keese of Brady, Texas, a wool and mohair buyer for Forte, Dupee, Sawyer Co., says he sees more poly twine and poly tarp now than ever before. Ranchers use poly twine to tie stuff to fences, and the shearing crews use it to tie poly tarps for shade and protection from the wind.
"The hay industry won't give us the time of day," he said. "We ought to go to nylon string and give it a try. It would help some because nylon fiber will take a dye like wool."
"There have been attempts to make a hay baling twine made out of nylon over the last few years," said Bob Padula, wool quality consultant for the American Wool Council. "I've had discussions with Australian twine distributors and they indicate that they have run into a financial brick wall. There isn't enough demand for it, and the costs for the twine are too high. It's a frustrating situation for everyone world-wide. Not just the U.S. sheep producer."
Keese also suggested that ASI develop a certified poly-free shearing program and include giving shearing crews nylon tarps to use as a bonus to help reduce contamination in fleeces.
"We can't blame our problems on the drought or cheap prices anymore," Keese said. "We need to be responsible for our product."