Merino sheep were bred to endure the extremes of the Australian climate, but the ongoing drought coupled with recent dust storms is taking a toll on wool quality and quantity.
Wool brokers and farmers are reporting some wool clips have been reduced by two kilograms a head.
Jemalong Wool managing director Rowan Woods, from Forbes in the New South Wales Central West, said it is a challenging time for growers who are battling the elements.
"Obviously raised dust has to be collected somewhere, and it certainly does get collected by woolly sheep," Mr Woods said.
"We have less nutrition and more dust to deal with which has led to a significant reduction in quantity, quality, micron and tensile strength of wool.
"The average six-kilogram wool cut could be back to four."
Wool stock down
The Australian Wool Testing Authority reported that the amount of wool it tested in January 2019 compared to January 2018 was down 12 per cent to 151,013 bales.
Sheep are not only growing less wool due to seasonal conditions; the sheep population has also declined as farmers have been forced to destock.
Greg Rogers, has halved his Merino sheep flock on his station "Yarto", near Booligal in the NSW western Riverina, and has been feeding the remaining stock since August.
The drought conditions have been exacerbated after three dust storms rolled through the property in a week.
"The effect on the country has been quite significant and it destroyed what little feed we had left," Mr Rogers said.
"The dust has certainly made things a lot more difficult and we will have to up the feeding rate."
Mr Rogers hoped they would score some significant rain before they shear in July and August.
"If we get some decent rain before then it will wash a lot of the dust out and all is not lost," he said.
"But we will certainly need the season to turn around and if it doesn't our wool yields will be down."
Clip preparation key
Farmers trying to make the best money possible for their wool are choosing not to include the dusty and dirty wool when they sell it.
"Growers want to try and lift the style grade of their wool as much as possible, so the removal of dusty backs is more prevalent than other times," Mr Woods said.
Despite those efforts drought affected wools were being discounted at auction.
"Buyers have an expectation of a certain quality, and if they have to buy more dirt with that wool then they will discount it more heavily," Mr Woods said.
Dust costly work for shearers
Riverina shearer Nicki Guttler said shearing dust and drought affected sheep can be a challenge, not only are they harder to handle, but also harder on gear, which was taking a toll financially.
"It does get a bit hard, it's very dusty on the handpiece and it gets in your eyes as well," Miss Guttler from Wagga Wagga said.
"It's just a lot harsher on gear which has to to work a bit harder and that can affect quite a lot of things from your combs and cutters through to your handpiece and the motor of the shearing plant," she said.
Miss Guttler said under normal seasonal conditions she would use about eight combs and 24 cutters a day, now due the dust she was using about 12 combs per day.
"A comb can cost between $30 and $40 and can last a couple of weeks to a couple of months depending on how often you use it, so if you have to grind it twice as often, it will wear out quicker," she said.
"I'm certainly having to buy them more often at the moment."
The tougher fleeces were also impacting shearers incomes as shearing was piece work.
"It can affect your numbers especially if you are not used to pushing through a bit of tough dirt, it can definitely take a toll on the tally board," Miss Guttler said.
"If there's plenty of dirt in the sheep it can make the sheep kick and carry on more and make them very unsettled which makes them harder to hang onto."
Miss Guttler said the drought had made shearing a tough commitment for farmers.
"With the rain very sparse farmers tend to hang off on shearing as they are not sure what to do," she said.
"Do they buy feed or sell them or get rid of them before shearing? The farmers are thinking a lot about what to do with their sheep."
Dust will not settle rising wool market
The Australian Wool Exchange Eastern Market Indicator is currently at $19.68 a kilogram, $1.56 higher than the same time last year.
"The market is holding up extremely well, I think it's a blessing the wool market is so strong, because if it wasn't I don't know if people would be trying so hard to retain their sheep numbers," Mr Woods said.
Mr Woods does not foresee wool prices reducing falling anytime soon.
"The national wool clip will continue to decline as sheep numbers continue to reduce and it could be a good decade before we see recovery in the sheep numbers," he said.
"Given that supply is low as a result and demand is very high for wool I can't see the market is going to have any major setbacks in the next five to 10 years."
Mr Woods said farmers were trying to maintain their core breeding stock.
"They want to be in the position to start building their numbers up when the drought breaks, but we are going to be coming from a very long way back and it doesn't rain grass," he said.ABC