Serving the
    American Sheep Industry

Since 1918

Management Resources

Wool Management

Maximizing Wool Returns

Dave Rowe, Mid-States Wool Growers

With the increase in wool demand, the development of new markets, and the government LDP program, producers have been provided an opportunity to make the wool a profit center in their sheep enterprise. In order for producers to maximize this opportunity, they need to prepare for their wool crop throughout the year. This means proper management.


Management to many producers involves having the sheep dry and penned up when the shearer arrives. This is only the minimum level of management required to harvest their wool crop. Unfortunately, there are some producers who can' t reach even this threshold. The sheep are not penned up and many times they are wet when the shearer arrives.


Another form of management is at the other extreme. These producers plan daily to maximize their wool return. They shear their sheep and then place a cover over the animal to be worn for the next 12 months. They clip their pastures to prevent the covers from getting torn and thus contaminate their fleeces. They keep their feed at the sheep's feet in order to reduce feed contamination in the wool. Finally, the day of shearing is busy with activity. The sheep are penned; the shearing floor is clean and kept that way during the entire shearing process by sweeping the floor between sheep. The fleeces are placed on a skirting table and anything that is not 100% acceptable is pulled from the main fleece and bagged separately. The fleeces are stored in a clean, dry place until they are marketed. Marketing is planned by taking the fleeces to shows and fairs where spinners and producers can meet face to face. 


The difference between these two management approaches can mean as much as 10 to 100 times more return. The sheep can be the same, but the management is the difference. Many times we hear producers say that they don't manage their wool because it isn't worth anything. Most producers can increase their wool check 100% if they would just get their wool out of the defect grade and into the clear-wool grade. 


Defect wool may be due to high vegetable-matter content. This can be corrected by not feeding over the top of the sheep's back and neck or by mowing pasture fields to control burrs. Defect wool may be due to fiber strength. This is caused by stress sometime during the growth of the wool fiber. This may be due to poor nutrition, excessive worms creating an anemic situation, or fever at lambing. Defect wool may be due to short fiber length, off-color fibers or kempy fleeces. All of these defects can be corrected through management. Mother Nature will grow a strong, clean, usable wool fiber if the sheep are properly managed.


While most producers are not at either end of the above spectrum, most of us are somewhere in the middle. Many times there are management practices that do not require a lot of extra effort if we would just think about our goal of a good fleece throughout the year. 


Following a few key management practices, producers can realize more return from their wool clip.


Staple length can be affected by shearing once a year at 12-month intervals. This will provide a three-inch staple which is used by the largest number of mills.

The nutritional level of the sheep throughout the year affects staple strength. Placing sheep under stress due to reduced feed intake or excessive worms can cause a weak spot or general weakness in the fiber strength. Keep your ewes in a body condition of 2.5-3.5 throughout the year.

Staple strength is affected by physical stress on the sheep. One of the most critical times in the ewe's life is lambing. A fever at lambing can place a break in the fiber, which causes the wool fiber to break at a specific point along its length. This break means that there are two pieces of fiber on each side of the break; neither one of the lengths is 3 inches. Solution: shear the sheep prior to lambing. If a break occurs, it is at the end of the fiber and creates no problem in fiber length.

Excessive vegetable contamination of the fleece. This is cau Mansed in one of two ways. First is in the pasture. If pastures have weeds, cockle burr, or seed heads, this will cling to the fleece and lower its value. Secondly, the VM is coming from the barn feeding system. Are your feeders allowing the sheep to stick their heads into the hay and contaminate the fleece with hay chaff along their neck and back? Clipping pastures or shearing before the ewes come to the barn for winter feeding will reduce the amount of hay chaff and contamination to the fleece. 

At shearing, management needs to occur before the shearer gets to the farm. First, don't bed the barn the night before shearing is to take place. This straw will cling to the wool and ruin an otherwise useful clip. Clean straw in the wool is a dead giveaway to poor management.

Shear dry sheep. Under no circumstances should wet sheep be shorn. The wool will be ruined and can't be saved. Even a little dampness will allow wool to turn yellow, stain and mildew. 

Keep the shearing floor clean. Sweep up tags and bellies and bag them separately. Sticking them in the middle of the fleece to try and hide them lowers the value of the entire clip and contaminates the clear wool. Wool buyers know that all sheep have belly wool and tags. Bagging it separately and marketing it for what it is allows the buyer to pay you the maximum value of your entire clip.

Bag wool one fleece at a time so it can be graded. The preferred packaging material is clear plastic wool bags. This eliminates the burlap contamination common in the old burlap wool bags. Never bag wool in plastic feed sacks. This contaminates wool with polypropylene and this can not be separated completely at grading, which will ruin a total piece of the final fabric. 


These points, while basic, will do more to improve the quality of a clip than anything else a producer can do. For further improvement, producer would need to look at the genetic makeup of their sheep and determine if it is in their best interest to try and lower the fiber diameter.

Wool Packaging Changing

After over 100 years of packaging wool at the farm in jute bags, the United States wool industry is changing. Beginning in 1999, plastic-film wool bags and pouches will begin to show up in barns during the shearing season.

This change was demanded by the U.S. mills in order to improve the quality of the domestic clip. According to Stanley Strode, wool manager from the Mid-States Wool Growers Ohio warehouse, the world has been wrestling with the packaging issue for many years, trying to come up with a product that is non-contaminating to the wool, yet strong enough to withstand handling of the bag as it moves from the farm to the warehouse.

The new plastic bags and pouches are the same size as the jute bags and poly packs that are currently being used. This decision was by design, so that producers would not need to go out and purchase new packaging equipment. The same wool bagger or hydraulic press which has been used for many years in barns throughout the Midwest will continue to be the equipment of choice for these new bags.


One caution: the new plastic film was developed to keep contamination of the wool to a minimum. It is not the same type of plastic found in plastic feed sacks. Plastic feed sacks are one of the biggest polypropylene contaminators found in the Midwest and east.


The 1999 wool season will be the transition year to get the new plastic film into the system and the old packaging material used up. All burlap bags and poly pouches need to be removed from the pipeline as soon as possible. After the 1999 wool season, all wool will need to be packaged in the plastic film. 


According to Strode, the new bags have been tested for strength and durability and we believe that while testing under field conditions continues, the current bags we have will stand up under most shearing conditions.


For producers interested in securing the new plastic-film bags, they will be available through the Mid-States Livestock Supply Division in Ohio and Kansas.