Where there’s wool, there’s a way

With shearing gangs mostly stood down under the level 4 lockdown, farmers face some challenges, reports Jill Herron.

Shearers and wool-handlers across the country are “very keen” to get back to work once Covid 19 restrictions ease – and farmers will be pretty pleased to see them.

As Federated Farmers Meat and Wool Industry Group Chairperson Miles Anderson points out, a trained shearer could crutch around 600 or 700 sheep a day, but the untrained far fewer. And he’s not relishing having to do his own crutching at his Timaru property.

“It’s not impossible for some farmers to do their own but with feeding out and lots going on at this time of year it could be difficult and could lead to some very long days. Myself, if I had to do a full belly crutch I’d probably do 200 the first day but only about 50 the next. It’s something you have to get fit to.”

For the non- farmers out there, crutching refers to shearing the back end of the sheep for hygiene purposes. Anderson says many farmers had delayed the work, but some had been forced to continue for the welfare of their animals, as mild weather meant fly-strike was an issue in some areas.

Lower conception rates could result if sheep could not be crutched, meaning fewer lambs and those born potentially struggling to find a drink if ewes still had excess belly wool.

“The longer it goes on the more acute the situation is. If it’s extended into May we could see some real pressure on farmers and contractors as the number of sheep [needing to be crutched] piles up.”

NZ Shearing Contractors Association president Mark Barrowcliffe said there was initially a mixed reaction among workers when the Covid 19 Level 4 restrictions largely shut the industry down.

“There were some that didn’t want anything to change, they were a bit ‘she’ll be right’, and others were a lot more nervous. But I think as a nation we’ve all bought into the Covid yarn now. Everyone’s grabbed the severity of it now.”

Some North Island shearers who had been working in the South Island had hurried home prior to lockdown while others had chosen to stay on. With the south having a later timeframe for pre-tup (mating season) crutching of ewes, workers there would be in high demand once restrictions eased, he says.

Under the level 4 alert shearing is considered an essential service only if animal welfare is an issue. The Association, which represents those who shear 70 percent of New Zealand’s flock, had produced detailed guidelines for managing such cases, including deep cleaning of shearing sheds prior to work starting, a register of staff to enable clear traceability and disinfecting of staff and company vehicles.

Based in the King Country, Barrowcliffe says the ruling on only allowing work for animal welfare reasons encouraged farmers to gauge whether a job was really essential or could be delayed, with many choosing the latter. While this could cause a build-up, it would be nothing the industry hadn’t managed in the past.

“This happens all the time in this industry with the weather or competition from Australia paying higher wages, lots of things. We are good at managing it and we will all get through it.”

Some farmers could elect to shear their own sheep with the help of staff or family. However, because training opportunities had been lacking in New Zealand for many years there is a shortage of skilled young people.

People needed to be fit for what is a physically demanding job that would take unskilled workers considerably longer to complete.

Under a level 3 Alert smaller work crews would continue to be required, with physical distancing rules applied to meals and travel to prevent possible spread of the virus.

“it’s not ideal but we’ll make it work,” says Barrowcliffe. “We have some of the hardest workers who love the social side. You might have had seven or eight people working together with the radio on, they have fun and have a beer at the end of the day. It’s not going to be as fun. There might only be three or four people, that’s half the party, and they might have to bring their own food and miss out on hot scones bought in by the farmer’s wife.”

What was important however was to stop the spread of the virus as an industry and a nation and to support farmers. “Farming is what is going to lead this country out of this hole. Farmers are already thinking well ahead and planning for what’s to come.”

Federated Farmers is working to get clarity on how the industry could operate under an alert level 3. They were also surveying farmers this week to assess stock numbers in light of an ongoing drought, recent flooding affecting crops in Southland, and the prospect of more stock being carried over winter because of a major reduction in capacity at freezing works due to Covid-19.

“April is generally the peak kill for meat works, but we’re just going to have to work through it,” says Anderson.

Farmers should take stock of what feed they have and act now. Grain, straw, sheep nuts and calf pellets were available as feed options and adding more urea could help encourage grass growth, he added.

“Plan ahead now for a longer lockdown to be on the safe side.”

* Made with the support of NZ on Air *

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