In December 2015 we announced we were on our way to realizing our dream of producing dual-purpose sheep. Our first black ram (Clun Forest X), our purebred Rambouillet ram, and our Fredrick James (Suffolk cross/Rambouillet) were going to work.
The goal was to produce acceptable meat lambs with wool that was pleasing to wear. Personal preference towards knitting with naturally coloured yarns is what directed the choice towards coloured sheep in the flock.
Our first lamb crop from these rams is ready to be weaned. The lambs were born between January to May and are coming off of grass weighing between 75 and 100 pounds. Their weaning weights depend more on when they were born than from which ram they are from. These weights are in line with our meat standards. This was achieved on pasture only. They had no grain in the night pens this summer.
This is the first proof that improving fleece does not mean giving up meat production. The next decision is how to proceed with marketing fleece when this lamb crop is shorn next year.
The rams will have their fleeces made into yarn along with a few of the finer-wooled mature ewes this year. The processor told us to send one coloured fleece and the rest white and the result will be a lovely grey. The rest of the fleeces and possibly belly wool will be shipped to Canadian Co-operative Wool Growers. The big research project will now be as to how to proceed in the future.
Questions about the fleece market
The questions raised are: Is it financially sound to market raw fleeces or processed articles such as rovings, yarn or other materials to the public? Is there truly a demand for raw fibre from sheep in Canada? We were confident that this is a growing area with the push towards exotic fibres such as angora, cashmere, alpaca and llama. But, what is the public looking for in sheep?
A quick tour of Facebook showed us that this is an ever-growing area of interest in fibre of all kinds. One knitting forum, which is mainly items made with sheep wool, on Facebook hosts a membership of 41,509 people. On another Raw Wool for Sale forum there are currently 7,613 members and they all want a different kind of fleece depending on their personal use.
The biggest challenge for us is seeing the value in what we are producing. Apparently there is value in fleece of all kinds.
People have a huge variety of uses for all kinds of bits and pieces. Amazingly enough even the really dirty pieces that we thought were garbage can be washed then marketed online as natural wool stuffing for use in toys and other products. If it felts a bit in the washing process it can still be used for toy stuffing so what we considered a zero-value product, with a small amount of input cost, is currently selling on www.etsy.com for $5 to $8 per pound. If this isn’t appealing, due to time constraints of the producer, it can also be marketed through Canada Woolgrowers as belly wool, but the payment is not nearly that high for it.
In order to sell fleeces for the high prices they must be of high quality and clean. Fleeces that have low vegetable matter, have natural colour and come from Rambouillet or Rambouillet-cross sheep have consistently been selling at online forums starting at $8/pound. Very high-quality fleeces can sell for $50 each. The buyer pays for all shipping costs. Considering a fleece should weigh at least two pounds, skirted and cleaned of all of debris, this could be substantial income per ewe.
This year was the first time the scoring cards for fleeces were studied on our farm. Time was spent on both the fibre festival score card from the Blue Hills Fibre Festival which is held in Carberry, Man. and the commercial influence one from Olds, Alta. Replacement ewe lambs will be chosen on how well their dam performed as a meat animal and as a fibre animal.
Interestingly when talking with shearers about fleece, traditionally it was quite common for the best of the fleeces to be processed into knitting yarn and the remainder sold through the wool co-operative. Apparently our plan is not new at all. Some of the biggest flocks used to also sell yarn from their flocks or fleeces for spinning. So, in a way this project is just carrying on a Canadian tradition.