Most sheep grow wool that needs to be harvested at least annually. It is not uncommon to shear some of the longer-wooled breeds twice a year. Although some breeds have more valuable wool than others, all wool has value and should be prepared properly to maximize its return.
In some sheep operations, wool comprises a significant portion of the income to the enterprise. In other operations, it may be a by-product of lamb production or even a cost of production.
Wool was the first commodity to be traded internationally. It figures prominently in the history of the United States and many other countries, especially the United Kingdom. It is still important to the agricultural economies of many countries.
Value-determining characteristics of wool
Many factors determine the quality (and value) of wool. These include fiber diameter, crimp, yield, color, purity, and staple length and strength.
Fiber diameter, also called fineness, is the actual measurement of the thickness of the wool fiber. It is measured in microns, which is one millionth of a meter. The diameter of the fiber determines the thickness of the yarns that can be made of it. Smaller diameter wools (22 microns or less) can be made into finer yarn.
Uniformity of fiber diameter is also very important. While different parts of the sheep's fleece may have varying fiber diameters, too much variation in fineness (grade) is undesirable. Average fiber diameter is the single most important value-determining characteristic of wool. Fiber diameters is estimated visually or may be determined in a laboratory by objective measurement.
Crimp is the natural waviness or bend of the wool fiber. It varies with the diameter of the fiber and can be used as a predictor of fineness. Fine wools have more crimp per unit of length than coarser wools.
Yield is the amount of wool left after scouring (washing). It is usually expressed as a percentage of the original "grease" fleece weight. "Shrinkage" in wool is comprised of wool grease (lanolin), sand, dirt, dust, and vegetable matter (VM). Yield in wool is quite variable (e.g. 40 to 70 percent) and it is affected by many factors, both genetic and environmental. Bulkiness of fleece generally indicates a high yield.
In the commodity market, wool that has dark fibers is very undesirable. This is because colored fibers cannot accept dye. In contrast, in many niche markets, colored fibers are very desirable, as many hand spinners and weavers prefer natural colors.
Staple length is measured from the base to the tip of the unstretched fiber. Longer-stapled wools are more valuable. Length also adds more weight to the fleece than any other single characteristic. Strength is another important aspect of staple length. Strength determines wool's ability to withstand vigorous cleaning and manufacturing. Tender wool or wool with breaks in the fiber greatly diminish the value of the fleece.
Marketing options for wool
The world wool market is dominated by Australia, while China is the world's largest consumer of wool and third largest producer. New Zealand is the second largest producer and the largest producer of crossbred wool.
The United States is a minor player in the world wool industry and is a net importer of wool. In the world wool market, super fine wools are the most valuable. They are made into the highest quality clothing, usually high fashion items.
Wool marketing can be broadly classified into two methods: commodity and direct (or niche).
Most sheep producers don't have enough of their own wool to market it directly to a warehouse or woolen mill. Many county, regions, or states operate wool pools. A wool pool is a group of producers who combine their wool for marketing. There's enough wool at a pool so that it can be separated (classed) and sold according to type and quality.
In recent years as market conditions have changed and the wool industry has continued to contract, many wool pools have been consolidated to create more sizable lots.
Private or cooperative wool warehouse
Wool warehouses act as "brokers" for wool. The largest wool warehouse in the United States is Roswell Wool (in New Mexico). Their wool is offered for sealed bids to consignments via regularly schedule sales. Mid-States Wool Growers Cooperative Association (in Ohio) operates the oldest wool warehouse in the United States. Mid-States offers various marketing options to producers: cash, grade and yield, consignment, consignment premiums, and clean price core test grade and yield.
Fiber co-ops are sometimes formed to try to add value to producers' wool. Some cooperatives are large and have formed alliances with international partners. Others are small.
Producers' Marketing Cooperative, Inc. (PMCI) is a grower-owned cooperative headquartered in Mertzon, Texas. They market approximately 1.5 million pounds of product annually.
Direct marketing of wool
Direct marketing is when the product is marketed directly to the end consumer. The most common method of direct marketing wool is marketing whole fleeces directly to handspinners, weavers, and other wool craftsmen.
Different types of wool have different characteristics and uses. Handspinners have different preferences the type and color of wool that they spin. Long wools are popular among handspinners, as they are the easiest to spin. Some handspinners will combine different types of wool or animal fibers.
Regardless of the type of wool preferred, all handspinners desire clean wool that is free from vegetable matter and other contaminants. Fleeces marketed to handspinners should be skirted. Many times, the sheep are covered to keep their fleeces clean and minimize the effects of weathering. The cost of covering is more than offset by the higher prices received for the fleeces.
There are various ways to add value to wool. Wool roving is a piece of wool that has been washed and combed into a clump and twisted to hold the fibers together. Flattened roving is known as batting. Rovings are used for spinning, felting, stuffing, padding, and various craft projects. Wool can be processed one step further and made into yarn.
Various finished products, made from wool, can be marketed directly to consumers or other outlets: garments, outerwear, rugs, bedding, etc. For producers with lower quality wool (e.g. meat-type), making wool into blankets provides an excellent means to add value and direct market product.
Wool Loan and LDP program
In the United States, marketing assistance loans and loan deficiency payments (LDPs) are available to wool growers. Eligible producers may request a 9-month marketing assistance loan or request an LDP.
An LDP is a payment from the government. It is the difference between the loan rate and repayment rate. The loan rate stays the same for several years and is different for ungraded vs. graded wool. The repayment rate fluctuates. LDPs are available for both shorn wool and unshorn lambs. The payment for unshorn lambs is 6.865 lbs. x the LDP rate.
Loan and LDP rates
$1.00 per lb.
$0.40 per lb.
|Source: USDA FSA
In a marketing assistance loan, wool is used as collateral for a loan from USDA. The wool program is managed by local FSA (Farm Service Agency) offices. Marketing loans and LDPs should be applied for before beneficial interest in the wool is lost.