Taranaki farmer ditches wool, switches to wool sheep

Taranaki sheep farmer Murray Jackson is turning his back on wool, a move he hopes will change his life.

The nearly 500 lambs due to be born at Te Kupe station at Te Popo, near Stratford, this spring have feathers, not wool.

Jackson is optimistic that this extraordinary new breed of sheep, Australian Whites, will cut the daily workload in half and greatly reduce the cost of running the farm.

“It’s great for me to have something so different,” said Jackson, whose family has owned the station for 103 years.

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“Their coats just glisten white.”

With their coarse wool, the Australian white sheep does not need to be sheared, daggered, axed, prevented from flying or housed.

Murray Jackson with the only malformed lamb he found during lambing in his new Australian white flock.

ANDY MACDONALD / Stuff

Murray Jackson with the only malformed lamb he found during lambing in his new Australian white flock.

“I’ve probably spent half my life stabbing and stabbing sheep,” he said. “Just collecting is as much work as the work itself.

“On any economy-sized sheep farm, these jobs will account for at least 50% of the total labor input, with wages of perhaps $50,000 a year.

“And like most sheep farmers with an average age of 60, I’m not too excited about going to the gym (wool) to do this physical sheep work.”

Murray says he has spent a good part of his working life at the mill.

ANDY MACDONALD / Stuff

Murray says he has spent a good part of his working life at the mill.

And for several years, shearing Romney’s flock of sheep has cost more than what he gets for his wool.

“Every time I shear a sheep, the price goes up by 30 kopecks. $3.30 is spent on shearing a sheep, and currently we get $1.50 per kilo of wool.

The Australian white, which has coarse hair instead of wool, is resistant to fly attacks, where flies lay eggs on sheep and their maggots burrow into the animal’s flesh.

“I spend thousands every year on chemicals that prevent avalanches,” Jackson said.

There are several sets of triplets among Australian white lambs.

ANDY MACDONALD / Stuff

There are several sets of triplets among Australian white lambs.

Another advantage is that Australian whites can lamb three times in two years instead of one year, and their lambs are fast growing and hardy.

“It’s hard to believe some of the things they’re getting in Australia: an average 27kg lamb carcass at sale. “For us, the average sheep is 18 kilograms,” Jackson said.

Jackson marvels at the growth rate of Australia's white lambs.

ANDY MACDONALD / Stuff

Jackson marvels at the growth rate of Australia’s white lambs.

There are several sets of triplets among Australian white lambs. Although not yet tasted, the meat of the Australian white is famous.

He said he would try to partner with restaurants or butchers who want to promote meat as a delicious product.

Jackson's grandchildren, Felix, 2, and older brother Knox Hamilton, along with an Australian White lamb, named Tiny Cowboy Hat.

ANDY MACDONALD / Stuff

Jackson’s grandchildren, Felix, 2, and older brother Knox Hamilton, along with an Australian White lamb, named Tiny Cowboy Hat.

However, it is likely that the lambs will be safe from slaughter at the moment, as it needs to be increased in number.

Jackson crossed Wiltshire sheep with Australian white rams. This is a breed that sheds its wool but is less productive than the main romney flock.

It will take him five years to breed the crossbreeds to pure AW, but there may be some advantages to keeping some of the Wiltshire breed for local conditions, he said.

One of his concerns is that Australian sheep may develop foot problems in Taranaki.

Australian white lambs are so white that they look filthy compared to their mothers.

ANDY MACDONALD / Stuff

Australian white lambs are so white that they look filthy compared to their mothers.

“It’s all soft, wet green grass here. You can’t put desert sheep in such conditions and expect them to be fine. This is not real.

“Crossing them with Wiltshire sheep, which are quite tolerant of foot and weather, will reduce much of this risk.”

The station's woolen products are 103 years old.

ANDY MACDONALD / Stuff

The station’s woolen products are 103 years old.

There are currently no Australian white studs in New Zealand, so breeders have to import embryos and Jackson is one of the few farmers experimenting with the breed.

Jackson plans to name his sheep Te Kupe Whites after the 400ha rural hill station.

If the Australian whites are so successful, it could turn the station’s historic wool into a rustic holiday home that will no longer need to be used.

The days of filling the old shearing shed with sheep for shearing are numbered.

ANDY MACDONALD / Stuff

The days of filling the old shearing shed with sheep for shearing are numbered.

Jackson’s woolly sheep are not the only unusual sheep in Taranaki.

Parininihi ki Waitotara, the region’s biggest Fonterra supplier, has started milking 1,600 sheep this season after partnering with the Southern Hemisphere’s biggest sheep milking operator Spring Sheep Milk Co, which wants to have more than 30 sheep milk suppliers in Taranaki. 2030.

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