A highlight of the Royal Agricultural Society’s Golden Fleece competition, held in Wanaka for the second year in succession, is the battle between the country’s merino studs for fine wool supremacy.
Two top prizes went to Blairich Station in Marlborough’s Awatere Valley: the Supreme Fine Wool Championship, and the Champion Merino Ram. Tom Small, his wife Claire, and his parents Ron and Sue, make up Blairich partnership. Tom travelled with the fleeces to the event in early June.
“The standard of the fleeces was exceptional,” he says. “There wasn’t a bad one in the room. It was pretty pleasing for us because we have always worked hard on wool quality.”
Blairich has long been known for producing quality fine wool Merinos. A couple of years ago, they bought Erewhon Stud with its horned and polled Merinos, the polled animals bearing fine medium wool.
Initially running the three studs separately, they now have just the two – Blairich Merino and Erewhon Polled Merino. They are putting a lot of work into the polled stud, investing in industry leading genetics to improve the quality of the wool along with carcase traits.
“There is a market for polled Merinos as long as the wool quality is as good as that of the horned. We have made good progress. I reckon given 15 to 20 years there may not be many horned sheep left in the industry. We have improved the whiteness, crimp and waterproofness in sheep so that they can handle any environment.”
In 2016, representatives from Norwegian active outdoor knitwear company, Devold, formed “partnerships” with five South Island high country stations, including Blairich.
“They will take all our wool on contract for the next three years and keep it in a batch with our farm label on it. They are making inroads into the European high end market, increasing their market share by 30% each year. Claire and I had a trip to see next year’s products launched and saw our wool being processed.
“They want the type of wool we breed – long staple, deep crimped and well nourished with a low coefficient of variation. This will make us more money because we can put more of this type of wool on a sheep.”
He says Devold have provided contracts that give them confidence this arrangement is for the long term.
Despite an uncharacteristically rainy summer which kept them on their toes maintaining animal health, Tom is pretty upbeat.
It has been wet, but warm, so grass growth has been good. A ram they bought shares in with a couple of Australian breeders is looking promising.
His first crop of lambs were smaller in number but high in quality. This year, pregnancy scanning suggests he has settled into his work much better.
“Quarantine, travel, settling into our environment, and not being housed or kept on a controlled diet can all mean a ram might take 12 months to settle in. We bought another ram the next year, and he had no problems. You just never know.”
“There has never been a time in my life that things have been as good in terms of wool prices. There’s a big shift in the market, no stockpile, and consumer demand is there. I think these good times will keep going.”
This article was brought to you in association with the following businesses…
- Straight Contracting Marlborough
- Wilfield Stud Sheep Farm
- Hart Shearing