Historically humans have counted on their sheep flocks to provide meat and milk for food as well as leather and fibre for clothing. The sheep and wool industry in Canada began with the first French settlers in the mid 1600's. Canadian sheep are still raised for food products, leather and wool.
Canadian wool production peaked in 1945. Wool production has since declined with lower national ewe inventory numbers. Today like, lamb meat, wool is imported to meet domestic demand.
Wool market prices are established by global markets. The price of wool fluctuates according to the production supply of key regions including Australia, New Zealand and Europe. Demand also fluctuates based on the global economic conditions of key manufacturing areas in Asia and Europe.
The wool fibre
Wool is the natural skin covering of sheep. It differs from other animal fibres by having a serrated surface; a crimpy, wavy appearance, an excellent degree of elasticity; and an internal structure composed of numerous minute cells. In contrast, hair has a comparatively smooth surface, lacks crimp or waviness and will not stretch.
A microscope reveals that all wool fibres consist of two distinct cell layers, and some fibres have a third layer. The layers are:
- The epidermis, the outside of surface layer, made up of flat, irregular horny cells or scales. The scales overlap projecting toward the tip of the fibre. Fine wool has many more serrations per centimetre than coarse wool. The epidermis cells impart spinning and felting qualities to wool.
- The cortex constitutes the principal body of the wool and lies immediately below the epidermis. These cells impart strength and elasticity to the fibre.
- In most medium to coarse wools, missing in fine wools, a third layer is present known as the medulla. This is the innermost honeycomb of various shaped cells. Wool fibres with medulla are generally coarse, uneven in diameter and harsh to the touch.
Marketing wool starts long before the actual selling of the fleeces. Global wool markets and wool prices fluctuate, sometimes dramatically. The flock manager needs to decide how wool production fits, or even if it fits, in the flock business plan. Flock managers focusing on lamb production often see wool as a by-product where shearing and wool-handling are added costs.
The genetics for high quality lamb production are different than those for high quality wool production. Lamb producing flocks shear at least annually to keep the sheep comfortable. Flock managers who produce wool as a primary income source are in a competitive world and must manage the flock to produce as high value wool as possible. Shearing is done when the wool clip is at its finest. There are many flocks that produce wool as one of several revenue streams.
Factors affecting value
Management of flock genetics, animal handling and feeding, as well as nutrition play vital roles in wool quality.
Research from Agriculture Canada's Lethbridge Research Station and the University of California both showed that increasing the protein content in feed increased raw wool production and that sheep fed rations that didn't meet maintenance requirements significantly reduced the weight of wool produced. Meeting the nutritional needs of the flock is critical for all production.
Producers can improve the returns from their wool clip by focusing on management that helps keep fleeces clean. In Alberta where winter-feeding is the norm it takes planning: the right feed, good feeders, as well as timing of shearing to produce a clean fleece.
Selection of sheep
The breed of sheep determines fibre diameter and the type of wool produced. Finer wooled sheep, such as some of the range breeds Rambouillet, Columbia, Targhee or Polypay, have wool that is more valuable per pound when sold in commercial markets than the wool of other breeds. Meat producing breeds tend to have shorter, coarser wool. Hobby hand-spinners may desire some of the long wooled, coloured or novelty fleeces.
Hairs or kemps in the fleece significantly reduce its value. Hairs are long, continuously growing, coarse fibres lacking in crimp. Kemps are shorter, kinky coarse fibres that do not grow continuously and can be found in breeds like Cheviotor Dorset. Similarly, dark or coloured fibres will reduce the value of wool in most markets. Hand spinners, though, sometimes appreciate the special effects coloured fibres can produce. The tendency to produce kempy or coloured wool is genetic and can be controlled by selection and breeding.
Be careful to keep wool value in perspective when choosing sheep for their wool qualities. While the fleece of a fine wooled sheep may be worth several times as much as a coarse fleece, at today's prices the total value of even the very best fleece is small compared to the value of a market lamb. Therefore, producers should choose the sheep breeds best suited to the profitable production of lambs and the particular conditions on their farm.
Care of sheep
The care sheep receive affects the value of fleeces. The portion of the wool fibre growing during periods of stress, such as fever, illness, malnutrition, or lambing, is very weak. This weak spot produces a breakable fibre, making it less valuable. If a sheep has a high fever, the weakness in the wool is often so great that much of the fleece will later drop off. Even if the fibre stays together on the sheep, a weak spot can break during processing. Maintaining sheep in the best possible health is important for many other reasons besides its effect on the wool.
Care of fleece before shearing
Alberta winters mean sheep are fed for a number of days or months on harvested feeds. Contaminants such as hay, straw or grain chaff in the wool devalue a fleece. Feeder designs and feeding practices are critical. Feeders where sheep reach into their hay, where wind or feeding systems throw hay onto the waiting sheep put a lot of plant fibre into the fleece on the neck and back areas. Feeding when the sheep are away from the feeding area reduces fleece contamination.
Hay feeders that limit access to the amount of forage or force the sheep to reach forward to access the hay help keep the fleece cleaner. Inevitably, hay feeding and straw bedding generally means there will be some chaff in the wool. The goals when selecting sheep feeders are first to reduce feed waste and secondly to reduce wool contamination.
Other contaminants also cause problems in processing wool. Pasture management to minimize weeds, weed seeds, burrs and muddy areas helps keep fleeces cleaner. Generous bedding in barns or corrals also minimize fleece contamination with mud and manure as well as enhancing the health and comfort of the sheep. Also be aware that feeder and market lambs with mud and manure contamination of their fleeces will receive price discounts in most markets.
Plastic twine is undesirable in a fleece. The scouring, cleaning or carbonizing processes used to cope with organic contaminants cannot remove plastic. Plastic fibres reduce the value of wool and woollen fabrics. Remove the twine from hay bales and before grinding or chopping forages. Twine should be removed from hay bales. Removing twine not only protects the fleece it also protects the sheep. Plastic twine cannot be digested so fibres eaten by the sheep can lead to digestive upsets, blockages and possible death.
Avoid contaminating wool with paint. Any paint brands or marking pens used on sheep for identification must be a special paint intended for marking sheep. These special wool paints are formulated to be removed by the scouring processes. Other paints and general-purpose livestock markers can ruin the fleece. Try not to mark sheep excessively and confine the marks to less valuable portions of the fleece, such as the head and neck.
If you are producing extremely valuable fleeces, particularly for the hand spinning market where cleanliness of the fleece is especially important, fabric coats are available that can protect the fleece. Compare the price of the coat sand the expected premium for the clean fleece before deciding whether coats are a good investment.
Care of fleece at shearing
In most flocks ewes should be shorn three to six weeks prior to lambing, if possible. The stress of lambing causes breaks in the wool fibre and lambing itself tends to add various contaminants to the fleece. Shearing prior to lambing also eliminates the need for crutching the ewes. However, care must be taken not to overly stress the pregnant ewes. Some intensively managed flocks shear several times a year to assist in ewe and facility management. The wool must be kept separate from full year fleeces. Canadian wool markets generally will not buy the shorter wool fibre or will discount it severely.
The sheep should be as clean as possible and completely dry before shearing. Shearing is more difficult if the sheep are wet, or even damp, at shearing time. A damp or wet stored fleece is more likely to rot, mildew, mold or become musty. Sheep should not be shorn immediately after a period of unusually muddy weather, or when they have liquid feces from recent change in feed. Sheep are generally shorn before the pasture season.
Coloured sheep should be shorn after white sheep to avoid colour contamination of the white wool. The shearing floor should be swept clean after each animal. A professional, experienced shearer takes long, smooth strokes, with a minimum of second cuts. That produces long fibres rather than ones that have been cut twice. Experienced shearers also handle sheep carefully to reduce stress and to minimize cuts or injury to the sheep.
A fleece shorn off properly will stay together. Gather together and pick up the fleece as a unit, rather than lifting it so it pulls apart. Toss the whole fleece onto a wool preparation table. Have a wool table with a porous top made of a wire mesh or wooden slats. This allows chaff and other contaminants to fall away from the fleece while it's being prepared. The fleece is tossed, cut side down, on the wool table and spread out to roughly its original shape. Tossing the fleece also releases chaff and second cuts.
Wool soiled with manure around the edges of the fleece should be pulled off and discarded. In some countries where wool is the prime income ewes are crutched before shearing to reduce contamination. Wool that is merely stained by manure or urine should be put in a separate bag labelled as 'soiled' wool. Fleeces may be devalued if they are contaminated, stained or damp, they also can affect other fleeces packed closely to them.
Any coloured or kempy wool should be pulled off and bagged separately. Some black-faced breeds are apt to have darker wool on the neck, throat or leg areas that should be separated. Also any wool with paint brands should be bagged assoiled wool.
The wool from the belly area is usually noticeably shorter and often more stained or contaminated than the rest of the fleece. It should be pulled off and bagged separately in a bag labelled 'belly wool'. Face wool and topknots should also be bagged with belly wool since they are short and often kempy.
To roll the remaining fleece fold the sides toward the centre of the fleece then fold the neck area back toward the centre of the fleece. Gently roll up the fleece, starting at the tail end.
Traditionally, the rolled fleece was tied together with paper twine. Today, most wool buyers prefer it not be tied. Be sure to know what your market is looking for. If the fleece is tied for any reason, it's extremely important to use only the special paper twine made for tying fleeces. Other types of twine should not be used.
Sort fleeces according to the different types to get the best possible price for the wool. Even if one buyer takes it all, separate bagging speeds the job of grading it.
Belly wool, manure stained wool, wool with kemp or dark fibres, and wool that is dirtier or chaffier than most of the lot should each be bagged separately. Label the contents of the bags. If there are sheep of different wool types within the flock, bag their wool in separate bags. For instance, keep Finn and high lustre wool separate from the Rambouillet-type wool. Down wools (Dorset, Suffolk) should be bagged separately.
Wool for sale in small quantities to hobbyists should be bagged accordingly. Paper grocery bags or clean, lint-free cloth bags are suitable containers, depending on the size lots that customers want. Beware of plastic bags because wool can deteriorate if it does not get fresh air.
Use the large specialty wool sacks sold especially for bagging wool when selling large quantities to commercial wool buyers. A wool-bagging stand or hydraulic wool press is needed for properly filling these types of sacks. Some shearers and wool buyers supply wool presses for packing clients' wool.
A label with your name and address should be placed inside the sack before it is sewn shut. Another label, with your name and address and the name of the buyer, should be attached to the sack.
Producers can market wool by selling:
- to a commercial wool buyer
- to shearers or local wool buyers
- fleeces to handcrafters
- partially prepared fleeces
- home-made woollen products
Commercial wool buyers
Large wool processors want to purchase a graded product that meets their particular requirements. Therefore, they do not usually purchase wool directly from producers except in special circumstances such as local processors. There are woollen mills in some provinces that may be interested in buying directly from producers if the producer can provide the quality and quantity of product they are looking for.
Commercial wool buyers purchase wool, sort and grade it, and then sell it to wool processing factories. They deal in large quantities to make shipping economical and to make the paperwork associated with exporting wool to other countries worthwhile. Wool buyers purchase the types of wool they can readily resell. Poor quality wool or specialty wools that are of interest only to a limited handcrafters' market may or may not be what they are willing to pay for.
Shearers and local wool buyers
Some shearers are offering wool-packing and/or wool-buying services. This is generally on a fee-for-service and is very convenient for flock owners.
Hand spinners and weavers form a small but sometimes important market for wool. They purchase a number of different types of wool. Each handcrafter usually wants only a particular type for their work. They often want coloured or long wools or wools of varying fibre diameter or crimp. However, they are also particular and do not want stained, dirty, or weak fibred wool. Producers can contact local craft guilds or industry organizations to locate hand crafters in their area.
Partially prepared fleeces
Some hand spinners, weavers and others like to purchase partially prepared fleeces. The following wool products all have their own buyers:
- raw fleece as it is shorn from the sheep
- washed, but otherwise unprocessed fleece
- washed and carded into roving
- washed and carded into batts
- washed, carded, and spun into yarn
Some sheep producers do this processing themselves. There are also custom wool processing businesses that will prepare the wool and ship it back to the producer for marketing.
Markets for wool to be used in handicrafts or for woollen products may be found by contacting:
- local hand spinners and weavers guilds, Senior Citizen clubs, etc.
- farmers' markets
- newspaper advertisements
- notices posted at craft supply stores
- displays at fairs and craft shows
Managing Wool Quality
- Wool quality is very dependent on genetics. Breed for heavier fleece weights, finer and cleaner fibre.
- Have flock health and nutrition management plans.
- Have feeders or feeding programs that keep fleeces clean.
- Handle all forages and bedding in a manner that reduces fleece contamination.
- Have lots of clean bedding.
- Use only approved 'wool' or 'scourable' marking products
- Manage pastures to reduce weeds, burrs, thistles, barley foxtail contamination.
- Crutch or trim sheep if mud or manure tags are an issue.
- Have a qualified shearer. Remove fleeces in one piece, minimize second cuts.
- Plan your shearing day – call and book your shearer well in advance.
- Set up shearing facilities, order wool sacks and twine if your market wants tied fleeces.
- Have the sheep in the barn the night before the shearer arrives. Never shear sheep that are damp or wet.
- Shear ewe lambs first. Shear dark sheep and older sheep last.
- Sort and bag wool according to quality and cleanliness. If your market will accept poorer quality wool, clearly label bags 'belly', 'stained', or 'coloured'.
Although wool is not a high-priced commodity, proper management of its production can make the difference between little or no wool income. The choice is up to the flock manager.
Compared to the value of lamb, wool generates much less revenue. Producers should not sacrifice lamb production for improvements in wool quality. However, eliminating sheep with coloured fibres, hair or kemp can often be attained with no sacrifice to lamb production. In wool producing flocks breeding choices and selection based on data from evaluations for staple length and micron improves fleece quality. Commercial wool testing laboratories operate in the United States.
Maximize the value of the wool you produce by taking proper care of it while it's on the sheep and then while handling it at shearing time. Find out where the wool markets are and know the quality of wool that pays a premium.
For more information:
- "Wool Production in Canada", Virtual Tool Box, Canadian Sheep Federation
- "Wool Quality", "Shearing Your Sheep", Alberta Lamb Producers
- Wool quality testing laboratory