The future of Merinos is alive and kicking

Future of Merinos - alive and kicking


Opinion
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Merinos are on the comeback trail and young growers are running with it, writes Peter Austin.

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Merinos are back! And Peter Austin welcomes the young growers undamaged by the industry's past heebie jeebies and mismanagement who are driving the future.

Merinos are back! And Peter Austin welcomes the young growers undamaged by the industry's past heebie jeebies and mismanagement who are driving the future.

WHAT a timely and uplifting publication was the “Merino Annual” that formed part of the August 10 bumper issue of The Land.

Page after page featured stories of Merino breeders kicking financial goals on the strength of buoyant markets, improving technology and renewed industry confidence. We read of breeders enjoying gross annual returns of $250 from a Merino ewe, and of others retaining wethers as woolcutters because it’s more economical than breeding a crossbred lamb.

Others are reaping solid returns from a wool and meat-lamb enterprise on suitable country, while superfine woolgrowers are at last enjoying some long-awaited premiums for their specialty product.

Meanwhile, in south-west Queensland, Merinos are making a comeback, as cluster fencing programs keep wild dogs at bay.

It’s hard to credit the stories related to the same industry that dominated The Land’s news pages in the dark years after the merciful axing of the wool reserve price scheme (RPS) in February 1991. As many readers will recall, the RPS – established by the then Australian Wool Corporation as a price stabilising mechanism in 1974 – had been hiked up by an over-confident industry from 645 to 870 cents a kilogram (clean) in June 1988. Admittedly, this new reserve was still well short of the market, which had peaked at 1332c/kg earlier that year, but way above long-term trendlines. It had long since ceased to serve as a “floor” – it aspired to dictate “the market”. Instead, it brought the whole thing crashing down – first, with the fateful May 1990 decision to lower the reserve to 700c/kg, followed inevitably by its total collapse seven months later.

Then ensued a decade of pain as the industry came to terms with market realities, slowly unloading its 4.7-million bale stockpile and bringing production into kilter with demand. Who can forget the images of once-valuable Merino ewes being shot and “pitted” under the government-backed flock reduction scheme, for a compensation payment of $1.80 a head! 

Industry recovery was not helped by the onset of Ovine Johne’s Disease in the late 1990s and the ensuing ham-fisted official attempts to contain it, nor by the ill-considered government program to “fine up” the NSW flock, often in defiance of environmental realities. Many growers left the industry, turning to wheat or cattle, often on land ill-suited to the new enterprise. Fences were torn down, shearing sheds dismantled and pastoral employment slumped, along with the economies of many country towns.

Perhaps most damagingly of all, a generation of intending future woolgrowers left family farms to seek careers elsewhere, and that was the most encouraging aspect of “Merino Annual”. So many stories featured young people, from a generation grown up since the dark days of the 1990s. These enthusiastic and innovative young folk have every reason to be confident in Merino’s future – especially if they heed past lessons!

- Peter Austin

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