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Online News | Biological defleecing methods peel wool off like an orange

Hayley Linton
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Sheep being shorn at the Oxford A&P Show  Hayley Linton

Imagine a world where you don't have to shear your sheep, instead a machine vacuums the wool off for you... how baaaa-zarre!

Australian research is underway on a new shearing method that uses a system of biological defleecing. Although still being developed, recent major breakthroughs have enabled researchers to identify a chemical which can be injected into the sheep without harming it. 

The technique is based on a protein from the corn plant called zein.

After being injected, it causes a 'break' in the fibre of the wool, allowing the wool to be removed by hand just days later - a method which could reshape the shearing industry.

The Adelaide University research team, led by Professor Phil Hynd, said there needed to be an alternative to shearing, replacing shears with combs and cutters with a fast, safe and better quality product to harvest wool.

Hynd believes this method is much better for the sheep, saying it's much like a vaccination which doesn't hurt, as opposed to being potentially nicked and cut by the shearers.

There is a real struggle in Australia as 75 million sheep need to be shorn. With the lack of shearers the research is driven by farmers. 

The machine will complete 1000 sheep an hour compared to 100 an hour with traditional shearing.

“It's like a robot just running over the whole animal breaking the fibres and sucking them away with a vacuum.”

Hynd said image analysis would help with sorting and classing. After the wool has been harvested, it will run along a conveyor belt and a high speed system will drop out the dags, prickles, dark fibres or even baling twine.

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Modern day wool press Hayley Linton

Although it is years out from New Zealand, President of the Mid Canterbury Federated Farmers David Acland said there was a shortage in shearers and wool handlers so this sort of research was really important.

With 26 million sheep in New Zealand to be shorn it was critical for the future, he said.

Acland has been farming since 2002, where he is based on a large farm just out of Christchurch. He runs 12,000 sheep over the property and is directly affected by the financial and sustainable future of wool.

He said if it improved the efficiency in wool removal and enabled it to happen with less labour, it would make wool more viable. With the increased drive towards more sustainable products, it would also make sheep farming more profitable.

“The direct cost associated with removal of the fleece to what we receive, we are doing that at a significant loss. Even if this helps a small amount it will be huge.”

General Manager of Devold and Trustee of the NZ Campaign for Wool, Craig Smith, said there would always be sheep in New Zealand, therefore always a need to get wool off sheep.

He isn't against the idea of new technology in New Zealand but is unsure of how it will all work. Smith believes that over time it will develop and evolve.

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Wool waiting to be pressed Hayley Linton

Canterbury sheep shearer Shawn Adams worries that if this new technology were to come to New Zealand he would be out of a job.

With 30 years of expertise in the shearing industry he understands that to look after the welfare of the sheep, it needs to be shorn. If it is cost effective for the farmer then he is open to learning more about it.

It's interesting to see the world evolving - instead of heading to the shed for a hard day's work shearing, it will be honeyyy, I'm just going down to vacuum the sheep!