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Two-part shearing solution geared to elevate wool industry, ready for investment

The Australian Wool Innovation and The University of Adelaide have two revolutionary opportunities to provide wool growers with alternative shearing solutions to the age-old practice. Request for Proposals are now open for interested commercial partners. 

Australian wool is a globally marvelled natural fibre in hot demand across luxury markets, yet various workforce challenges are stifling industry growth.

The process of shearing has remained relatively unchanged since the introduction of mechanical shearing in the late 1800’s. And while there have been efforts to create a robotic shearing system to automate the shearing process, various anatomical obstacles such as wrinkly skin and sharp cutters on movable animals make this an extremely complex engineering challenge.

In a bid to secure the future prosperity of Australia’s wool industry – boasting 70 million sheep – the Australian Wool Innovation (AWI) and the UA have identified two solutions to work in-tandem to alleviate workforce shortages and provide greater flexibility for growers. 

Commercial Manager for Agricultural and Life Services at the UA, Cathryn Lee says, “The shortage of skilled labour in shearing and wool harvesting is a significant challenge to the industry. This technology will help to address that shortage of skilled labour in the market.”

A team of shearers and rouseabouts in a Victorian Shearing Shed

AWI Program Manager, Animal Wellbeing, and Industry Resilience Carolina Diaz agrees, “Woolgrowers have had a lot of problems in the last few years to get shearers on-farm on time, paying very high prices and having to adjust their shearing calendars to the availability of contractors.”

“While the AWI [the not-for-profit industry research development corporation (RDC)] continues to put a lot of money into training, it's still really challenging, especially since COVID, to attract people and retain them.”

Carolina stresses though, “This will be an alternative not to replace traditional shearing but rather to provide woolgrowers with another option."

 This important to include because they’re very big on this being ‘an alternative’… not totally replacing current practices.  

Two-part shearing solution ready for investors

The first component led by UA with funding from AWI is a short-acting injectable biochemical natural-occurring agent that weakens the wool follicle enabling it to break with very little force after a few weeks, once the animal has enough fleece regrowth to protect it against hypothermia and sunburn. 

Initial trials with AWI have garnered “very successful lab testing results,” says Carolina, and UA is now seeking partners for a licensing deal with a vet pharmaceutical company to support regulatory approval and commercialise the injectable biochemical agent. 

Expressions of Interest for UA’s commercial opportunity close Sunday, 30 June 2024, via AgriFutures growAG. here. 

Merino Fleece on a Merino Ram

The intellectual property in the biochemical agent is co-owned by UA and AWI. Once a commercial partner is engaged UA will seek regulatory Australian Pesticides Veterinary Medicines Authority (APVMA) approval. 

“We’re very confident that the mechanism [of the agent] works and is well understood. The next round of larger trials in a commercial type environment will demonstrate our hypothesis is absolutely correct, and then we can proceed to a full commercial trials and pharmaceutical protocol development,” explains Cathryn. 

“In the next 6 to 12 months we will have really solid data and be seeking an interested commercial partner to enter confidential discussions about taking that forward.”

The second component is the development of a mechanical harvesting system, led by AWI, to effectively remove the weakened wool. 

AWI is seeking proposals from engineering companies, universities, entrepreneurs, startups and other organisations with capabilities in mechanical development of a manual, semi or fully automated solution, that could also potentially support sheep and wool handling processes. 

Merino Ewes in Hay NSW

This could be in the form of a handpiece for manual wool removal through to a more comprehensive automated system including removal, but also all or part of the sheep and wool handling process: 

  • Sheep delivery
  • Sheep catch to sheep positioning
  • Sheep restraint and release
  • Weakened wool removal
  • In shed wool processing (contaminant detection/elimination, fleece, and fibre characteristics for wool classification)
  • Wool pressing and baling into different collection lines.

Interested in supporting the commercial development of AWI’s wool harvesting system? Visit AgriFutures growAG. here. Closes Friday, 22 December 2023.

Industry lessons applied to increase on-farm adoption

Importantly, the bioharvesting “process will eliminate the need for nets,” Carolina explains, like BioClip, a biological fleecing solution developed by CSIRO in 1997. It technically proved effective with the protein injection; however, hand removal of the fleece and netting was laborious and therefore not widely adopted. 

“If we can come up with a good harvesting system, it's going to require less skills from the people removing the wool, and change the way that we harvest wool,” says Carolina.

“In our 2020 trial [using the biochemical agent] the wool quality was tested with no changes, as the weakening area is quite small and happens in a very acute way. 

“We actually think that the wool clip quality is going to be higher because the length is going to be super uniform and won’t require second cuts.” 

Cathryn agrees the solution could provide advantageous market opportunities for growers, “as the wool can be harvested at a specific time and length to meet a market need for the wool supply chain.”

She also anticipates the cost of the two-part solution to be substantially lower than current shearing, alongside these additional benefits. 

Merino Rams, at Boonoke Merino Stud NSW

A collaborative solution set to benefit Australian woolgrowers

“This is substantially funded by the industry for the good of the industry so we're looking for somebody who can roll that out in Australia for maximum adoption as quickly as possible. We’re excited about the potential to work with an international partner as the technology must have economies of scale of an international market, using our world-class research,” Cathryn explains.  

“We recognise that the pharmaceutical work will require optimisation in partnership with the harvesting device, and the device will require optimisation in partnership with the pharmaceutical. 

“Together these innovations will be core to the profitability and viability of the industry in a global fibre marketplace.”

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