Passionate wool man calls for team effort

Kate MatthewsCountryman

Wearing jeans and a blue jumper, Roger Fletcher could have easily been mistaken for a sheep farmer checking out the market at a trade sale in Katanning recently.

But the Dubbo-based managing director of Fletcher International was visiting WA to gauge the season and find out how to manage the impact of declining sheep numbers on his Narrikup abattoir and local workforce.

Mr Fletcher takes every opportunity to visit his business interests, which range from cotton, grain and rail to exporting wool and sheep products and running his own sheep.

He also spends time lobbying politicians face-to-face, liaising with producers and export markets and fulfilling his board requirements as chairman of the Sheep and Goat of Australian Processors Council, vice-chairman of Australian Wool Innovation (AWI), director of the Australian Meat Industry Council board and a board member of NSW Infrastructure.

When farmers started to leave the sheep industry, Mr Fletcher bucked the trend. He saw a long-term opportunity and started buying sheep for wool production.

His passion for wool is intense and he believes good wools will always sell well if they are looked after, including in saleyards, otherwise the result is costly downgrades.

"Exotics need to be kept separate from Merinos at all times, otherwise the whole industry suffers," Mr Fletcher said.

"Markets are paying a premium for well-managed Australian wool and, unfortunately, buyers don't know when it's not segregated."

According to Mr Fletcher, the real challenge for AWI is to build demand for wool, which has been positioned as a high-priced fibre, so it exceeds production.

With increased promotions, an efficiently managed AWI and wool dealing with the high Australian dollar despite tight overseas economies, Mr Fletcher believes they are on track.

As AWI lured consumers into buying more wool, sheep numbers would grow slowly, he said.

"It's always dictated by money and at the moment we have a high priced lamb industry, so it's difficult to build the ewe flock.

"A lot of people don't have the facilities and young people don't like the work - it's one of AWI's issues we are trying to address by making it easier for people to farm sheep."

AWI is looking at better sheep yards, improved chemicals for worm resistance and farm management, easier shearing, flystrike control and wild dog control.

"The thing about wool is there is always a return each year. Sometimes you can grow a crop and get nothing," Mr Fletcher said.

In a supply and demand-driven industry in which lambs can peak at $200, Mr Fletcher believes sensible markets will prevail.

He added there were lessons to be learnt for sheep producers from the live cattle trade ban with Indonesia.

"It's a hard market to discuss and I'm not criticising live trade, but the Indonesian incident has told us you can get caught out," he said.

"My job is to protect my asset and the people who rely on me for their living. I'm just one link in the chain and I need to make sure it doesn't break.

"So we take an animal and process it into the best commodity we can. We don't just buy sheep for the meat, we buy it for meat, the skins - we use every part.

"Because we process in Australia, it gives us the ability to sell into more than 100 countries and this will only grow with help from free trade agreements."

Mr Fletcher said 92 per cent of sheep and cattle produced in Australia were processed in Australia and not exported.

As processors and exporters battle for sheep numbers, domestic efficiency is being pushed.

"The ones that will survive are the ones who are most efficient - and competition breeds efficiency," Mr Fletcher said.

With plenty of challenges ahead for the sheep industry, Mr Fletcher believes Australia is well placed.

"We are in the throes of proving our breeding for wool and meat and have come a long way," he said.

"Lambs in WA have increased from 14kg to now average 21-22kg.

"Our biggest challenge in the sheep industry or agriculture is infrastructure and costs.

"It's going to be a team effort to keep the sheep industry together, with farmers, processors and the wool industry working side by side."

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