Peelable Wool Not Shear Fantasy

Australian researchers refine sheep-friendly, money-saving biological methods of defleecing

Click go the shears boys, click, click, click, Wide is his blow and his hands move quick,

The ringer looks around and is beaten by a blow,

And curses the old snagger with the bare-bellied yoe

- Chorus from traditional sheep-shearing song, 'Click Go the Shears'

HANG up the shears, boys. The old click, click may be replaced with a rip, rip to take wool off a sheep's back.

Australia's Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization (CSIRO), a government research group, is in the final stages of developing a hormone-injection system that, in effect, removes wool biologically. The wool can be pulled off the sheep by hand because the hormone causes a weak spot to develop in the wool fibers just above the surface of the skin.

If the system becomes commercially practical, it could save producers millions of dollars while increasing the quality of the wool. "Not only is it a lot easier on the shearer and on the sheep, it always delivers a nice, evenly cut fleece," says Dr. John Stocker, chief executive of CSIRO.

Since the fleece does not have any "second cuts," where the shearer went back over the animal to clean up areas he missed, the fiber will command a higher price. In addition, the sheep will not be cut by the clippers. Thus, wool producers can immediately dip the animals in insecticides and other chemicals after the fleece is pulled off.

From the sheep's point of view, the ripping is likely to be less stressful than shearing. "The animals don't like being shorn," says Oliver Mayo, chief of the Division of Animal Production at CSIRO. But Dr. Mayo adds that no harm is done to the sheep by shearing. "They have to be shorn or their wool will keep growing, making them susceptible to flies and other problems," he says.

The search for a biological method of removing the fleece started about 10 years ago when the Australian Wool Corporation noticed that certain anticancer drugs caused hair to fall out. The company asked CSIRO to do some research. The scientists rejected the anticancer drugs as a method but discovered a class of small proteins that affected the growth of tissue. Eventually they isolated the protein in the salivary gland of a mouse and found that it worked with few side effects.

Technique not perfect yet

Since then CSIRO and its American partner, International Minerals & Chemicals (IMC), have been trying to perfect the technology. In Australia, the private research is being done by Cooper-Welcome Pty. Ltd., a subsidiary of Pitman Moore Inc., which is owned by IMC.

The private researchers are trying to find a way to genetically engineer the protein so that it can be mass produced, lowering the cost of the dosage from hundreds of dollars per shot to a few dollars. Over the past 10 years, Mayo estimates that CSIRO has spent A$6 million to 10 million (US$4.7 million to 7.9 million) on the research. (The amount spent on the private research is considered confidential information.)

The technology is still not perfect. The protein has two side effects: It causes pregnant ewes to abort, and the animals lose their appetite for a day or two.

"We have identified a number of the changes that take place with the introduction of the protein, but so far we have not been able to stop the abortion," says Mayo. He expects that Coopers-Welcome and CSIRO will continue field-testing the product for the next two years before they make a decision whether to introduce the product commercially. Even without pregnant ewes, there is a potential market of 80 million sheep.

To use the new technology, CSIRO is trying to devise a total system for the wool grower. For example, after the sheep has been inoculated, it will have to be wrapped in a netting or cloth to prevent its fleece from falling off. The net will have to remain on the sheep for up to six weeks until the new fleece growing in below the weak point in the fiber is long enough to protect the animal from sunburn.

At its laboratories in Prospect, about 30 miles west of Sydney, the injected sheep are wrapped in polypropylene netting. Leggings hold the bottom of the net while a flexible plastic bar running the length of the sheep's back holds both sides together. By just walking around, two of the injected sheep have loosened the fleece around the neck of the netting. One of the sheep is in the process of losing the fleece around his jowls.

If the new system is adopted, a rancher will probably take off the jowl wool and the top knot on the sheep's head to prevent its loss in the paddock, according to Peter St. Vincent-Welch, one of the scientists at CSIRO.

Getting 80 million sheep into nets will be a challenge. Dr. St. Vincent-Welch is now working on a machine that will drop the sheep into leggings and then automatically wrap each animal. Once the machinery is perfected, he says, the material will be reusable four or five times.

CSIRO hopes that the entire system will save producers money. Shearing represents up to 25 percent of a wool producer's direct cost. "It is getting harder and harder to get shearers and you would expect their pay to rise faster than that of other people," Mayo says.

Shearing is hard physical work. A shearer picks the sheep up and flips it onto its back. This causes the animal to go limp. For the next two to three minutes, the shearer is bent over the sheep with a clipper.

A good shearer - getting paid A$1.36 (US$1.07) per sheep - can take the fleece off 160 to 170 sheep in a day. "At the end of the day it takes about an hour to get the kinks out of your back," says Des De Belle, a retired shearer from Punchbowl, New South Wales.

Shearers' lives are hard

Shearing teams roam the countryside almost all year. It is a rough life, but Mr. De Belle says it allows young men to work hard, save money, and buy some property. Mayo says he expects that there won't be that much job displacement since the shearers will buy the new equipment and run it for the farmers.

If the technology becomes commercialized, CSIRO will have to work hard to get it accepted. Russ Foulks, who raises 2,000 sheep at Cootamundra in New South Wales, says the new system will require two musters or roundups - one to inject the sheep and one to defleece them. This is an extra muster from the current system. "When you are bringing sheep in over 20 miles, that's a lot more work," he says.

But Rod Evans, owner of Tara Park, a merino stud farm in Boorowa, New South Wales, says the hormone-injection system is "better than I thought it would be."

It could be particularly useful to Mr. Evans with rams since they are hard to shear. It takes two men about 10 minutes to shear a ram. Using the new system would cut both time and expense.

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