SHEEP RAISING AND WOOL PRODUCTION

MERINO SHEEP

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sheep on the White House lawn
Merino sheep produce most of the world’s wool and make up about a third of the world's sheep population. The produce large quantities of high quality wool whose fibers are so fine that five strands of them are equal to the width of one human hair and mile’s worth of them lined up end to end weigh less than a hundredth of an ounce.

Merino originated in 15th century in Spain. With the help of these sheep Spain secured a large share of the wool and sheep industry, which had been dominated or centuries by Britain. For centuries they were considered so valuable that it was a capital offense to export them from Spain. In 1765 a Spanish king sent 220 merinos to Saxony and 300 more were imported there nine years later. With these sheep Germany became a dominating power in the European sheep industry by the 19th century. Most if the sheep taken to Australia and New Zealand were merinos.

Over the years merino's have been bread into efficient wool generating machines. Each fiber grows at a rate of .008 inches a day, with 60,000 follicles per square inch. One sheep produces over 5,500 miles of wool fiber in a year and if the wool from 100 animals were laid end to end it would reach the moon and return safely. Merinos have been cross bred with English "down" sheep to creates varieties that produce abundant wool and meat.

Websites and Resources: Sheep 101 sheep101.info ; American Sheep Industry Association sheepusa.org ; Australian Wool Innovation Limited wool.com ; Australian Wool Exchange awex.com.au ; Wikipedia article wikipedia.org/wiki/Wool ; Sheep breeds 139.78.104.1/breeds/sheep ; Sheep magazine sheepmagazine.com/ ;

Other Kinds of Sheep

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Italianate Landscape with a Goat
and Sheep by Philipp Peter Roos
Fat-tailed sheep are popular in Asia and Africa. They produce wool, leather and meat and are named often the vast amounts of fat that grown around their tails. Sometimes 50 to 80 pounds. The fat is considered a delicacy and is sometimes is instead of butter.

The Tunis breed is raised to produce lambs for meat. Developed from fat-tailed sheep, they are born in the fall and killed in the spring for their meat.. Sometimes 50 to 80 pounds of fat grows around their tails and a board was placed under the tail so the sheep didn't injure themselves.

Asian Karukul sheep produce a valuable wool. Known as Persian lamb in the United States, the skins of newborn Karakul lambs are used to make coats and hats. Shaggy fat, karakul sheep, produce wool in a variety of colors. Karakul sheep are raised for Astrakhan pelts.

The Rambouilett produce some of the world's best wool. They were developed in France from Merino sheep. "Down" sheep such as the Lincoln, Cotswold, Leicester and Southdown were developed to produce both wool and meat.

Raising Sheep

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Gaucho in action
Some sheep are raised on ranches or farms. Others are allowed to roam and graze over a wide area. They are often guided around by shepherds who live outdoors with the sheep. Roaming sheep keep their stock supplied with fresh grass and often move between seasonal grazing areas, often highland pastures in the summer and lowlands and valleys in the winter .

Like goats, sheep will eat east most anything, require relatively maintenance and can survive in harsh environment as diverse as the Central Asian steppe, the Australian Outback and the Tibetan plateau. In some places the biggest concern is losing lambs to animals such as wolves, dingoes, snow leopards and thus viscous dogs are often kept with flocks to drive off potential predators.

In places like Australia, the United States and Argentina sheep are raised on ranches, stations and estancias with thousands or even tens of thousands of animals. In sophisticated operations, sheep are given inoculations to diseases, treatments against insects, special foods and hormone treatments. Over the years sheep that produced good wool are bred with other sheep to produce the best wool possible.

Sheep Shearing

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Sheep shearing
Sheep are usually sheared once a year in the spring when their coats are still thick from winter but the temperatures are warm enough so they don’t freeze after they are sheared. Whether done by hand or machine, shearing is the greatest single expense in wool production, accounting for 22 percent of the total cost.

Shearing methods often vary from palace to place. In the United States the fleece has traditionally been taken off in one piece. In Australia it is taken off in two pieces: the softer fleece from the belly and the fleece from the sides.

Shearers are men who are paid about US$1.50 per sheep, and a good shearer can shear about 200 sheep in a day. It is no surprise that shearers tend to be strong and tough. One man at a pub in Australia told National Geographic, "Don't ever mess with a shearer, mate, you'll always come off second best."

According to the Guinness Book of Records, the world record for sheep shearing by a human is 353 lambs in nine hours by Peter Casserly of Christchurch in February 1976. The record for a machine is 805 lambs in nine hours (40.2 seconds per lamb) by a machine in Waitnahuru, New Zealand on December 1990.

Wool Processing

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restored carding machine
Traditionally processing wool involved eight steps: 1) sorting, 2) washing, 3) fulling, 4) cropping, 5) carding, 6) weaving, 7) teasing the nap, and 8) pressing. The common English last names Fuller and Weaver have their origins in the medieval wool processing trades.

Freshly sheared wools is sorted at a mill according to fineness, length and strength. In many parts of the world much of this work is still by hand. Each type of wools product demands a different kind of wool. Tweeds, for example, need short thick fibers. Soft lamb’s wool is used for the best sweaters.

Raw wool is often dirty and full of impurities. In a process called scouring, the wool is cleaned in an alkali solution to remove the grease, which is often processed into lanolin. Soap and water baths get rid of perspiration.

Wool is "carded" in large machines consisting for revolving cylinders that straighten the fibers and comb them into filmy sheets. The carded wool is drawn out into a filmy strand in a processing called roving. The wool is then wound in a bobbin and spun into woolen yarn.

Woolen fabric is made from wool spun after the roving processes. Both woolen and worsted wools are spin by electric spinning machines that draw out the fibers and twist them into yarns made of two, three or four strands. Worsted wools go through more processing that lengthens the fibers by making them thinner and thinner.

After the yarns are woven into fabrics they saturated with hot water and put through rollers to shrink them. This process is called fulling. Strands are cut and evened out with a machine that operates like a lawn mover. The fabric is then dry-steamed and pressed between hot plates and ready for markets.

Sheep Technology

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handshorn wool
In the old days buyers relied on their eyes and noses and fingers to judge the quality of wool. Now wool-testing authorities objectively test wools on the basis of fiber diameter, vegetable-matter content, and clean-wool yield. Today over 98 percent of the wool sold in auctions has been tested in this manner. It has been around 40 years since wool was judged by sight and touch.

Researchers at a sheep station 70 miles from Mount Cook in New Zealand are attempting to produce wools that have many of the attributes of synthetic fibers by breeding sheep with uniform superfine wool, using computerized objective measurement of the highly inheritable factors such as wool diameter and fleece weight. and using this information to guide sheep into carefully thought out breeding programs.

In the 1980s, the University of Western Australian spent $1 million to develop a robotic sheep shearing machine. Built into the machine is a devise that can retract the blade in increments of five thousandths of an inch, enough to allow it to adjust for the animals breathing. The 1982 version of the machine could sheer an animal in three minutes about the same as a man. The ones made today are much faster.♬

To reduce shearing costs researchers have now experimenting with a compound made from the glands of mice which weaken the fleece and allows it to be plucked by hand. In Edinburgh A dentist has worked for years to combat the problem of sheep losing their teeth by trying to develop splints to support loose sheep teeth.. ╤

Wool and Sheep Market

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Wool in Newcastle
Once the world's dominate cloth-making fiber, wool now only accounts for five percent of world textile fiber market. The Soviet Union used to be far away the world's largest consumer of wool. With a conservative attitude about synthetics, a cold climate and a considerable amount of wool used in military uniforms, it consumed more wool than the United States and Japan, the No. 2 and No. 3 consumers, combined.╤

Wool prices fluctuate a great deal and over past few decades have declined considerably as a result of competition from cheaper, lightweight cotton and synthetics, and increased demand by consumers for sports clothes and casual clothes that tend to be made from cotton and synthetics rather than wool. .

Competition from synthetics has pushed the price of wool down to a record low of 429.3 cents per kilogram in 1993. After prices rose through the 1990s they collapsed again from an average from 702 cents per kilogram in first half of 1997-98 to about 484 cents in October, 1999 in part because of the Asian financial crisis.

Many of the sheep raised in Australia and New Zealanders are not produced for wool but are produced for meat in Muslim countries where people don't eat pork and beef is prohibitively expensive. At ports in Australia sheep are slaughtered facing Mecca using the halal method before being shipped off to the Persian Gulf in converted oil tankers that are seven stories high and can carry 115,000 sheep. It takes two days just to load one of these ships.

The fortunes of the economies of countries like Australian and New Zealand often used to rise and fall with the world price of wool. To help station owner ride out these fluctuations the Australian government used to buy owner's wool at an inflated prices if wool dropped below a certain level. These days these tactics are no longer as common they once were. Countries that were once depended on wool have tried to diversify so they were are no so reliant on it and many former wool ranchers have found other ways to make a living.

In recent years wool prices have fallen as consumers have switched to cotton and synthetics

Wool Producers

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wool display
Most wool is produced in the Southern Hemisphere and shipped to the Northern Hemisphere. Australia leads the world in production followed by China and New Zealand. Japan is a large importer of wool.

Top Producing Countries of Wool: (Production, $1000; Production, metric tons in 2008, FAO): 1) Australia, 687038 , 407881; 2) China, 619335 , 367687; 3) New Zealand, 367032 , 217900; 4) Iran (Islamic Republic of), 126330 , 75000; 5) United Kingdom, 104433 , 62000; 6) Argentina, 101064 , 60000; 7) Russian Federation, 90100 , 53491; 8) Syrian Arab Republic, 84220 , 50000; 9) India, 78156 , 46400; 10) Sudan, 77482 , 46000; 11) South Africa, 75798 , 45000; 11) Uruguay, 75798 , 45000; 13) Turkey, 74393 , 44166; 14) Pakistan, 69060 , 41000; 15) Morocco, 67376 , 40000; 16) Kazakhstan, 59291 , 35200; 17) Spain, 48403 , 28736; 18) Algeria, 42110 , 25000; 19) Indonesia, 41099 , 24400; 20) Uzbekistan, 40053 , 23779;

Top Producing Countries of Sheep Meat: (Production, $1000; Production, metric tons in 2008, FAO): 1) China, 3911135 , 1977048; 2) Australia, 1529579 , 773190; 3) New Zealand, 1184513 , 598762; 4) Iran (Islamic Republic of), 772608 , 390547; 5) United Kingdom, 652829 , 330000; 6) Turkey, 551932 , 278400; 7) Syrian Arab Republic, 479012 , 242136; 8) India, 469133 , 237130; 9) Algeria, 369936 , 187000; 10) Sudan, 323483 , 163518; 11) Spain, 312566 , 158000; 12) Russian Federation, 308436 , 155912; 13) Pakistan, 304185 , 153763; 14) Nigeria, 283323 , 143217; 15) France, 252625 , 127700; 16) Morocco, 238195 , 120406; 17) Kazakhstan, 218425 , 110412; 18) Turkmenistan, 183979 , 93000; 19) Uzbekistan, 174328 , 88121; 20) United States of America, 172109 , 87000;

Sheep and People (1974): 1) Australia (145,304,000 sheep and 2,726,000 people); 2) New Zealand (55,883,000 sheep and 2,726,000 people); 3) South Africa (31,000,000 sheep and 24,920,000 people); 4) Peru (17,300,000 sheep and 15,383,000 people); 5) Iraq (15,500,000 sheep and 10.765,000 people); 6) Uruguay (15,373,000 sheep and 3,028,000 people); 7) Mongolia (14,077,000 sheep and 1,403,000 people); 8) Yemen (11,600,000 sheep and 3,730,000 people); 9) Bulgaria (9,765,000 sheep and 8,679,000 people); 10) Namibia (4,400,000 sheep and 692,000 people); 11) Ireland (3,999,000 sheep and 3.086,000 people); 12) Somalia (3,000,000 sheep and 3.000,000 people).

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: Mostly National Geographic articles. Also Time, Newsweek, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Wikipedia, The Independent, Times of London, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

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© 2009 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated March 2011

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