Surber lays out the nuts and bolts of wool
LM Livestock Services’ Lisa Surber stressed the importance of advocating for the diversity of wool products and how to speak to consumers on their level about the many uses of wool. She also addressed producers as to how to decrease contamination, price factors and marketing wool for different markets.
Surber was featured on the American Sheep Industry Association (ASI) webinar titled “The Nuts and Bolts of Wool,” which aired April 30 via Optimal Ag. The webinar was funded with support from the “Let’s Grow” committee of ASI.
Advocating for wool
“Sheep producers absolutely must advocate for the industry whenever they can,” said Surber. “There are a lot of misconceptions about wool, and some people simply don’t understand how versatile wool can be.”
Surber recommended producers come up with their own “elevator speech” to give to consumers who are curious about wool products and production.
“I always hit on how wool is natural, renewable and biodegradable,” Surber explained. “It’s a pretty well-known fact that wool is insulating, but a lot of people aren’t aware that it’s also naturally flame-resistant and repels odor.”
“With the exception of a few people, almost everyone wears socks, so I usually will start with talking to people about their socks and go from there, telling them about the diversity of wool,” Surber said.
“We have to show people the diversity of wool and some of its lesser known qualities,” she said. “We need to be prepared to give that elevator speech whenever the opportunity presents itself. We have to advocate for ourselves.”
“We all need to pay attention to wool contamination because it ultimately affects the value of wool and can increase the price for those on the processing side of the business,” Surber stressed. “Having to pick through excessive contaminants costs the processors time and money.”
Surber explained there are two main types of contaminants for wool – acquired contamination and applied contamination, both of which can drive the value of the wool down.
“Acquired contamination is from contaminants sheep pick up in their environment,” Surber said. “There are a number of sources for these contaminants, but the most common is polypropylene twine.”
Surber explained twine is a constant battle for sheep producers, as it is the most common method to contain hay. Aside from hay, many producers use the twine to tie gates and panels.
“It’s really hard to avoid twine, but we need to be making a conscious effort to pick it up and throw it away when we see it on the ground,” said Surber.
“Other contaminants include tarps and grain totes used for feed,” she noted. “Both of these items are prone to fraying, and the fragments can contaminate wool.”
Surber explained applied contaminants generally boil down to paints used to mark and identify sheep in the herd.
“We need to ensure we are using paint that can be scoured out of the wool, though some processors don’t want to see any paint at all and will pay a premium for wool free of paint,” Surber said. “Producers need to be careful with manipulating the paint in any way that will affect the chemical composition of the product.”
She explained manipulations to paint products including heating it over fire or thinning it with diesel fuel can change the chemical make-up and make it impossible to scour out of the wool.
“Apart from contaminants, there are a number of other factors that drive the pricing of wool in both commercial and niche markets,” said Surber.
Surber compared the breed and genetics of sheep as the foundation of the herd and the prices in which wool will fetch.
“We can renovate a house all we want, but we can never change the foundation unless we change houses,” Surber explained. “I like to think of breeding and genetics in that regard, we can minimize contaminants and other influences as much as we want but if there isn’t a strong base of genetics in the herd, we won’t be successful.”
“Once we get past the foundation, we have to look at our environment and how we manage that environment,” said Surber. “We can control a lot of our environment, for example, if we store wool in a dirty, contaminated container, we can’t expect a premium price.”
“Factors such as type of wool, skirting, classing and shearing skill can all affect the quality of a fleece,” said Surber. “Poor quality and subpar shearing can also result in a lowering of prices for fleeces.”
“Before we even begin to think about pricing, we need to think about how we are marketing wool,” said Surber. “Commercial and niche market wool consider different factors when pricing and purchasing wool.”
Surber explained, in a commercial setting, buyers look at things that are objective and can generally be tested for in a lab such as micron, yield, length and strength.
“In some commercial settings, buyers may be interested in the preparation in the wool, such as how it was skirted,” said Surber. “In some instances, they may look at other contaminants, but in this setting it’s usually just the objective qualities.”
Surber explained specialty or niche wool markets play by a completely different set of rules when it comes to pricing and marketing.
“In a lot of these niche wool markets, people are looking at very subjective factors such as the preferred color and comfort of the fleece,” Surber noted. “There is no way to scientifically measure these features. “
Surber explained an instance on Facebook where she saw what she described as an “absolutely stunning” fleece and asked the seller what the micron of the wool was.
“The seller couldn’t tell me what the micron was, but this doesn’t necessarily speak to the quality of the product, as much as how different the niche and commercial markets are.”
Callie Hanson is the assistant editor of the Wyoming Livestock Roundup. Send comments on this article to firstname.lastname@example.org.