WA wool quality impresses testing authority

Melissa WilliamsCountryman

Defying expectations of what would normally occur in a drought year, WA wools have upheld quality parameters for fibre diameter and staple strength.

Australian Wool Testing Authority (AWTA) data from June 2010 to May 2011 showed the average fibre diameter of wool tested at its Fremantle laboratory has remained unchanged compared to the same period the previous year at 20 micron.

Average staple strength had increased by 2.3 Newtons/kilotex to 30.4N/ktex, average staple length had risen by 1mm to 84.5mm and average yield had increased by 0.2 per cent to 61.3 per cent.

AWTA WA regional manager Andrew Lindsay said the expectation was that dry seasonal conditions across much of southern WA for most of 2010-11 would cause a drop in wool fibre diameter and staple strength.

“What we have seen instead is surprisingly good-quality WA wools coming through the testing house, ” he said.

Mr Lindsay said this could be the result of producers feeding and managing sheep more strategically to optimise returns from high wool and meat prices, or reduced stocking rates on the back of high volumes of sheep being trucked and shipped out of WA.

Across WA, similar to the rest of the nation, wool test data this season also indicated that the fining down of the national woolclip has stopped.

He said wools were getting broader, which was likely to reflect a trend among Merino producers to include some breeding emphasis on meat and carcase traits.

Latest AWTA and Australian Wool Production Forecasting Committee reports show the volumes of wool for sale measuring less than 19 micron fell 6 per cent to March this year, double the rate of fall across all micron ranges.

The forecasting committee expects the national woolclip average fibre diameter to increase by 0.3 microns to 21.4 microns for the 2010–11 season.

Mr Lindsay said the biggest challenge facing the WA wool sector was the decimation of the State’s flock, with 1.2 million sheep estimated to have been sold to eastern states buyers this year.

“This will have ramifications for the local industry for years to come, ” he said.

Mr Lindsay said the volume of wool tested before auction in WA so far this season had only dropped by about 2.6 per cent compared with last year, which was not as big a fall as anticipated.

“We believe high prices have prompted many producers to sell wool that was previously stored, ” he said.

But the 444,758 bales tested to mid-May in Fremantle were well below historic levels. In 2005–06, AWTA tested 695,436 bales in WA, while 849,202 bales were tested in 1999–2000.

Mr Lindsay said AWTA had been marginally protected by the slump in wool volumes this season, because lot sizes had fallen by about 0.2 bales/lot. This meant that although the total number of bales tested had fallen by 2.6 per cent, AWTA had tested one per cent more lots than last year.

He said at the peak of wool auction activity in autumn and spring, AWTA could test up to 2500 lots — about 15,000 bales — a week using Laserscan for fibre diameter and ATLAS for staple length and strength.

Yield tests included scouring and drying wool to measure grease, ash and vegetable matter and were carried out using near-infra-red (NIR) technology.

Mr Lindsay said use of NIR systems had increased the speed of wool testing and boosted productivity at AWTA’s purpose-built wool testing laboratory at Bibra Lake.

He said wool testing remained the core focus of AWTA, but the downturn in the industry in recent years had prompted the authority to diversify its business.

This has resulted in a new testing service for food, soil, water, grain and fertiliser being offered at Bibra Lake under the Agrifood Technology banner.

Agrifood Technology was acquired by AWTA in 2008 and provides independent analysis for use by farmers, agronomists, irrigators, bore owners and government agencies.

“This service will be expanded in coming years as we look to spread our overheads across a wider base than wool testing, ” Mr Lindsay said.

AWTA’s business expansion program has also resulted in the purchase of the New Zealand Wool Testing Authority and establishment of a joint venture textile testing laboratory in China.

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