A PASSION for producing top-quality wool has seen Carol and Allan Phillips ride out the ups and downs of superfine wool production.
Their property Glen Stuart near Deddington is one of the state’s few remaining enterprises purely focused on Merino wool production.
The Phillips moved to Tasmania from Western Victoria in 1998 with the aim of establishing a wool growing operation.
“We were in a family farming partnership and we were wanting to expand but where we were the land was more expensive because it was cropping-type country and we were focused on wool,” Mr Phillips said.
“I just knew they grew very good wool down here in Tassie.”
After searching for a suitable property, Glen Stuart eventually became available.
At the time the property was about 1620ha and the family have added another 284ha. Initially they brought with them a flock of about 2000 breeding ewes.
The property is predominantly made up of native run country with about 162ha of improved or semi-improved pastures.
Across the property they currently run about 3000 superfine Merinos.
This includes about 150 stud ewes and 750 commercial ewes while the rest is made up of mainly wethers and some young stock artificial insemination is used on a portion of the stud ewes to introduce new genetics.
“It gives us access to genetics that we can’t afford to buy, or you can’t buy,” Mr Phillips said. “There’s probably less people trying to breed what we’re trying to grow now.
There’s nowhere near the amount of choice there used to be.”
The flock now consists of a blend of Saxon and Merryville bloodlines. While merinos are generally not known for their fertility, Mr Phillips said they had marked over 100 per cent of lambs for the first time last year.
Over time, he said their flock had gradually changed as they focused on different production traits including the wool micron.
“We probably did chase micron a little bit early on, with some nice elite crimpy wools which tested very well,” he said.
“Then they got a little bit too bold for a while, so we blended some more Saxon bloodlines through and tightened the crimp up a little bit specifically for the Italian market.
“We felt they were the people with the most money and if we went too bold in the crimp, they weren’t prepared to pay the top price,” he said.
Pregnant ewes are shorn in June and July while the bulk of the wethers are shorn in early October.
Average wool cuts across the flock are about 3.5kg to 4kg.
Most of the wool goes to high-end spinners for use in premium suiting and more recently in next-to-skin wear.
Mr Phillips does all the wool classing at Glen Stuart and he said knowing what customers require was crucial, because the Italians wanted the wool prepared to perfection.
“If you haven’t got it prepared exactly right, they might not operate on it.
We’ve been very fortunate over the years to get very good shearing teams and very good shed staff.”
This attention to detail has seen the Glen Stuart wool win some major competitions.
Most recently, they beat 73 fleeces from across the country for the grand champion award for the best overall fleece at the Australian Superfine Wool Growers’ Association competition.
He said the top-quality fleeces generally stood out straight away.
“At the superfine end it’s like judging anything very valuable, they’re looking for those intrinsic qualities so it is fairly subjective.
There are often very small gaps, so they’re splitting hairs really.”
He said a lot of their success came down to having the right type of sheep on the right property.
“I’m not taking all the credit for those really good fleeces because that plays a massive part in it,” he said.
They have seen some major challenges and market fluctuations.
“Realistically the choices to do something else on this property aren’t great.
You could do other things, but you wouldn’t be able to do them very well, whereas growing top quality superfine wool you can do that very well.”
He said maintaining top quality consistently required monitoring.
“It never stays constant, so you’re always tweaking it or changing things from year to year,” he said.
Glen Stuart phased out mulesing a number of years ago in response to market requirements.
He said one of the benefits of native run country was less scouring issues with the sheep, which helped prevent fly strike. Managing native pastures has also changed over time.
“I wouldn’t say it’s exactly rotational grazing now, but we certainly move the sheep around a lot more than we did earlier,” he said.
With supplies of superfine wool dwindling globally, he said being able to work closely with customers who buy their wool was a highlight.