August 2005 -- The 2005 wool season was characterized by yet another year of shearer shortages, a softer wool market compared to the last few years and, although U.S. wool quality has increased, the domestic-wool supply was at its all-time lowest.
?Although the wool market was softer than it has been in the last three years, we have not been as hard hit as Australia, who experienced a five-year price low,? says Rita Kourlis Samuelson, American Sheep Industry Association (ASI) deputy director of operations and wool marketing director. ?This difference is primarily due to exchange rates. In addition, the U.S. has worked hard to maintain many domestic customers, including the military, and develop new international companies to compete for U.S. wools.?
Shortage of Shearers
A problem not unique to the United States, but worldwide, is the decreasing number of shearers. More people are turning to jobs that are less physically demanding or are retiring.
?This year particularly, some regions had a real difficult time finding shearers,? says Larry Prager, manager of the Center of the Nation Wool Warehouse in Belle Fourche, S.D. ?For some reason, some crews that work this part of the country just didn?t form and, I?m afraid we are going to have this same problem next year.?
For some shearers, the decrease in numbers has transformed their part-time job of shearing into a full-time job during the late winter and spring months, especially when the weather doesn?t cooperate with shearing schedules.
One first-year shearer, Andrew Wemmer from Jordan, Mont., says that he typically sheared for producers with smaller flocks; however, was asked several times by larger crews to help when they got behind schedule due to inclement weather. Although Wemmer admits that shearing is a ?tough? job, he says that he has received some contracts for next year and will continue shearing as long as he can.
A great number of producers depend on shearing crews that come from foreign countries, such as New Zealand and Australia.
?The United States has a large number of sheep that need to be sheared in a relatively short time frame and this puts pressure on current shearing crews. We would have a major problem on our hands if those shearers from foreign countries weren't able to obtain their work visas for some reason or another,? says Prager.
This problem is at the top-of-mind for the ASI?s Wool Council. They have developed a Shearing Task Force, which focuses on this problem in addition to providing educational materials on the proper steps to put up wool for shearers.
To address the shearer shortage, the task force has developed a shearer database, which contains contact information from shearers who responded to a request to build a valuable industry resource. It also lists those shearers who have taken the extra step to become a Certified Sheep Shearer, declaring they will follow the steps of proper shearing and wool packaging.
?This is a project the ASI Wool Council is continually pursuing. Proper preparation is very important in order for us to sell our wool on the international market,? says Mark Marley, ASI Wool Council chairman and part owner of Roswell Wool in Roswell, N.M.
?I think it is important for the Shearing Task Force to continue finding ways to facilitate shearing in the United States,? says Dan Gutzman of Pendleton Woolen Mills in Portland, Ore.
On a positive note, Jim Bristol, chairman for the Shearing Task Force from West Branch, Mich., says he is seeing more young people, such as Wemmer, becoming a part of the sheep shearing occupation.
A Soft Wool Market
This year, U.S. producers were faced with the lowest wool market since 2002. However, the Australian wool market is also struggling as it hit its lowest point this year in almost five years.
?This has been a difficult wool season,? says Ron Cole, national wool reporter and western U.S. lamb reporter for the U.S. Department of Agriculture?s Market News. ?The global wool market has been narrowed this year because the wool spinners are being selective for micron and quality.?
There has been a demand for wools that are 22 microns or less and also for 30- to 34-micron wools because of the tight supply in the market. However, the medium-micron wools, 23 to 26, have seen the largest price reductions compared to last year.
?We are finding that because of the soft market, the wool is not moving out of the warehouse as quickly as last year,? says Greg Groenewold, manager of Groenewold Fur and Wool Co. in Forreston, Ill.
Prager concurs, saying that his wool producers are holding some wool back from the market because of the prices.
In addition to a selective market, the competition from foreign buyers was less this year, the U.S. dollar remained somewhat weak against the Australian dollar and there was a reduced demand from domestic buyers who generally purchase wool for the U.S. military.
?The stronger Australian dollar makes U.S. wools closer in price to Australian wools,? says Gutzman. ?However, there needs to be a little gap for all the exporting business to occur and to keep the wool flowing out of the United States.?
The export business is crucial for the U.S. wool industry as seen in 2004, 60 percent to 65 percent of the domestic wool clip was exported. This year is no exception; China is one of the biggest importers of U.S. wool.
?It is important for the U.S. to continue looking for opportunities to sell wool overseas. ASI has sponsored trials that have provided new homes for U.S. wools and kept their inventory moving,? Gutzman explains.
?Although we didn?t see as great of a push this year from international buyers as we did last year, I do think it is a good sign that we see them participating in our market even when prices are softer,? says Marley.
Increased Wool Quality, Low Supply
?We are looking at the smallest historical supply of domestic wool that has ever been produced,? says Cole, ?however, the wool crop was much better grown this year.?
Cole states that shorn-wool production in 2004 was 37.6 million pounds, which is down 2 percent from the year before.
?Wool quality has become a much bigger factor over the past five to 10 years,? says Prager, ?and it is important to continue grower awareness for wool quality and wool-preparation programs.?
Bristol stresses education for producers to help improve flock management and suggests that they take the ASI Wool Science 101 class.
?The American Wool Council has developed some new processes and markets for American wool and the producers have the responsibility to produce high-quality wool that will fill these orders,? says Bristol.
Gutzman says Pendleton seeks out wools that have been classed and skirted because it helps reduce the polypropylene contamination.
?Classing provides an opportunity for the grower to best present his product to the market, rather than just throwing it in a bag and coring it,? he says.
To promote proper wool handling and preparation, ASI has created a Certified Wool Clip Program. This program requires producers to follow specific guidelines before, during and after shearing so that when selling their wool, buyers will have a better understanding of how the wool was put up.
Sheep shearer, Jim Schaefer of Callao, Mo., says there are many ways in which a producer can improve his clip and that shearers are willing to work with them. When Schaefer shears, he brings along an English-style catch pen with a slated floor, which allows bedding materials and other forms of contamination to fall through the floor when the sheep walks across it before they are sheared.
?The certified programs got off to a start this year and I think more producers need to take a serious look at it because good wool preparation is an ongoing effort on their part,? Marley says. ?U.S. producers have to be able to prove themselves on a consistent basis to the international market before we will see the benefit.?
Now is the time for producers to start thinking about their wool clip for the 2006 season.
As Samuelson states, ?In real estate there are three important factors: location, location, location. In wool, those important factors are: quality, quality, quality.?