Knowing which sheep your woolen jumper came from is possible with electronic identification (eID) tags

Knowing which sheep your woolen jumper came from is possible with electronic identification (eID) tags

Do you know where your woolen jumper came from?

It’s unlikely that you do. That’s because, despite wool being one of Australia’s oldest industries, there’s been very little technological change in the way that it is produced — until now.

With electronic identification (eID) tags due to become mandatory for sheep across the country by 2025 to help in the case of a biosecurity incursion, some woolgrowers have seen another benefit in the new technology.

“We see value in these tags purely from a commercial level,” said Alister Persse, a woolgrower near Goondiwindi on the New South Wales/Queensland border.

A man in a long-sleeved blue shirt stands near wool.

The new technology is for biosecurity, but Alister Persse has found an extra purpose for it.(ABC Rural: Alys Marshall)

It means that in the space of a year, every grown merino sheep he owns has its ear scanned four times, documenting key stages of its life.

“We scan them to input their fertility, their fleece weight, their body weight and their [wool’s] micron,” Mr Persse said.

A sheep’s micron is the quality of its wool. The lower the micron, the softer the wool, and the larger the dollar value of it.

Traditionally, micron levels have been determined purely by sight, leaving the process lacking in specificity, but that’s changed now.

A fleece being thrown in the air.

Wool is judged on a range of factors including fleece weight, brightness and micron.(ABC Rural: Alys Marshall)

“We can measure the fiber diameter, or micron, of each sheep in the flock and scan that data back into their eID tags,” explained veterinarian Mike Revall.

“And I guess the simplest way to explain it is we are looking for needles in haystacks.”

These “needles” are the sheep with the lowest micron range, which are then drafted into a different mob so their wool can be sold for a premium price.

“There’s basically a $10 per kilogram premium for wool in the 16 -20 micron range,” Mr Persse said.

The future of traceable wool?

But it’s not just the extra money that has farmers excited. There are also traceability opportunities.

“We’re trying to build a story on our sheep operation where it’s a clean, sustainable manner [produced fibre]we’re doing it in a humane and ethical way,” Mr Persse said.

And here, the eID scanner comes in handy again, this time to track the wool as it comes off the sheep’s back.

A person wears a tag printer on their back jean pocket.

A sheep’s tag barcode will be scanned while its fleece is weighed, logging the data onto the eID.(ABC Rural: Alys Marshall)

“We scan the sheep’s eID as they’re being shorn so we can attribute their fleece weight to them,” Mr Persse said.

He uses this data to have a better knowledge of the high performers within his flock, but it could also serve to trace a bale of wool right back to the individual mob of sheep it came from.

Working alongside long-held traditions

Wool classers, the iconic characters of Aussie culture highlighted by the likes of Banjo Paterson and Henry Lawson, retain their important role in the shearing shed, but now they work alongside eID data.

A wool classer examines a fleece.

The wool classer’s role is to judge each fleece and separate them by quality, a job assisted by eID data.(ABC Rural: Alys Marshall)

“If anything, [eID is] actually helping the wool classer to not only class according to micron but also to give them a better connection between what the exporters and buyers of wool are actually wanting at the time,” Mr Persse said.

“We’re certainly not trying to over-complicate it but we’re capturing this information to improve on every level of our operation.

“It takes all the guesswork out of the job that we’re trying to do.”

Mr Persse’s sheep data consultant Elise Bowen agrees.

“The term that I would use for the role of eID tags is a balanced breeding objective,” Ms Bowen said.

A sheep being shorn.

A merino being shorn in Mr Persse’s woolshed.(ABC Rural: Alys Marshall)

“We’re never breeding solely based on one trait, so while Alister is making improvements to his flock’s micron over time, he’s not losing sight of body weight, or their fleece weight or losing sight of fertility.”

And the human eye still holds the final judgment.

“It doesn’t matter if some of the women have some of the best data indexes in the mob, if they don’t meet a classer’s visual criteria, like if they have bad mouths or bad backs, they’re cast out.”

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