By Judy Malone
August 2005 -- The Montana State University (MSU) Wool Lab has been serving the needs of the sheep producers in that state for more than 60 years. Established by the growers of Montana to serve the sheep industry, the laboratory?s primary functions include research, service and education. It has proven to be instrumental in improving Montana?s wool quality and continues to educate growers and students on the economical and environmental benefits of sheep.
The MSU lab is one of only four research wool labs remaining in the United States. In addition to research, projects associated with objective measurement and quality improvement of wool is conducted. This laboratory also collaborates with scientists and growers throughout the United States regarding the aspects of wool in their respective research activities.
To help meet the primary goal of education, the lab is outfitted with state-of-the-art equipment. Of particular importance is the fully-portable Optical Fiber Diameter Analyzer (OFDA2000). This computerized instrument quickly and accurately measures fiber diameter along the total length of greasy-wool staples. It is done in real time, on the farm or ranch, and can be used in shearing sheds and sheep yards. This technology means that wool?s most important processing qualities and characteristics can now be identified and measured at the time of shearing, providing immediate, critical information necessary to the producer for the sorting of the fleeces.
This machine, the OFDA2000, is one-of-five purchased by the American Sheep Industry Association (ASI) as part of its continuing raw-wool, quality-improvement program. The machines were strategically placed in university settings and warehouses across the country where they could be best utilized by all segments of the industry.
This equipment assists producers in understanding the levels of preparation, management and genetic programs needed to achieve industry benchmark standards for wool quality and for the marketing of wool. The data is also critical to the grower in determining future breeding programs and flock management.
MSU research associate and wool lab superintendent, Virginia Nollmeyer, frequently takes the OFDA2000 out to growers during shearing time, who have an interest in obtaining a better understanding of their clip. With this valuable data, growers have the ability to target specific markets or buyers for their wool.
"In-field use of the OFDA2000 at shearing time has proven to show immediate and short-term financial benefits to the grower by allowing them to class the wool into very specific lines based on fiber diameter,? comments Nollmeyer. "However, a larger benefit is realized when growers use the OFDA2000 information in their breeding and selection programs, as these genetic changes tend to be permanent and impact future wool production in their flocks."
The U.S. military is an important and critical market for the U.S. wool industry. It is the largest, single domestic consumer of the U.S. wool clip, consuming up to 25 percent of the annual crop. However, there is concern about the industry?s ability to supply the specific needs of this market.
Because of these concerns, Scott Gaumont, program manager for Cold Weather Clothing at the Soldier Systems Center, Natick, Mass., made a visit to the MSU wool lab to improve his understanding of the U.S. wool industry and to expose himself to the technology available to producers in the industry when they choose to be a part of these wool programs.
According to Gaumont, ?The objectives of this trip were two-fold: 1) to obtain a better understanding of the wool industry and 2) to be assured that the U.S. industry has the capability of supplying the military with their wool needs.?
Rodney Kott, Ph.D., extension sheep specialist at the MSU wool lab understands the validity of these concerns. He explained that when the Wool Act funding ended, there were a number of years that the industry lacked structure and direction; hence, the ability to continue quality programs was put at risk.
?However, in the last three years, ASI has worked hard to restructure and rejuvenate the wool programs to enhance markets for U.S. wool both domestically and internationally.
These new programs have contributed to what I believe to be a bright future for the U.S. wool industry,? commends Kott.
Like the MSU wool lab, one of the elements of the ASI program is producer education. If we are going to be able to supply the military with a specific type of wool, growers must know the demand exists and be given the tools to develop and grow this product. In just a few short years, producers have been progressive in developing quality clips of certain types of wool in large quantities.
In the past, there was little price differences between micron categories and prices were relatively flat and close together for all microns. However, as the military is looking at using wool in specific products, the need for consistency in fiber diameter is increased and growers will see financial advantages by sorting wool according to diameter.
The garment that the military is looking to supply to its troops will determine the specifications throughout the supply chain. In order to get to that product, it is important to work backwards through the system. The finishers will require a certain quality product from the top-makers who will, in turn, communicate the specifications to the warehouses and producers. In the end, the producer is asked to grow the type of wool clip that will make possible the end-product for the military.
?Through this visit, both of my objectives were more than sufficiently met. Knowing that producers have access to detailed data regarding their wool, like the kinds of information the OFDA2000 supplies, I am confident that the American producer can provide the U.S. military with the specific type of wool it desires to achieve the objective,? concludes Gaumont.
It is vitally important to the U.S. sheep industry to be able to fill the wool needs of the military. The industry has an infrastructure in place that provides the ability to fulfill all of the military requirements.
?We struggled for several years to be able to say that our infrastructure was such that we could supply the wool that the buyer desired. Through continued efforts at all levels of the industry, from the producer to the warehouses and ASI, that infrastructure has been built and we can say with confidence that the American sheep producer can provide the wool that is needed by the military,? concludes Kott.