Australia’s largest workforce has shrunk from about 15,000 when wool prices were booming in the 1980s to about 2,800.
The pandemic has further reduced the small pool of skilled labor and wool farmers are scrambling to shear their sheep.
Australian Wool Innovation chairman Jock Laurie said COVID had made the problem worse.
“Border closures have stopped people moving across borders and stopped people from entering New Zealand,” Mr Laurie said.
The shears close
Before the pandemic, about 800 New Zealanders came each year to help harvest the country’s wool staple.
While the seasonal flow is starting to resume, another, even bigger obstacle remains – the sheer physical nature of the cut.
Some studies show that a shearer expends as much energy in a working day as a marathon runner.
That’s why for decades the wool industry has been trying to find ways to take some of the noisy work out of shearing.
In a typical woolshed, a shearer plucks a sheep from a holding pen and drags it onto the shearing platform to begin removing the wool.
Sometimes the drag can be a 3 meter or 4 meter drag.
Lack of income
Shearer Norman “Rocky” Reichelt said that dragging a sheep, getting it into position and keeping it still was the hardest part of shearing.
Mr. Reichelt, now 63, has been shearing since he was 14. Very few shears last this long in the trade.
“You can’t find enough young people to do it, the work is very difficult,” Mr. Reichelt said.
The old ‘grab and pull’ action has become more difficult as the sheep have grown in size.
Mature sheep often weigh 60-80 kilograms. Rams can be double.
Australian Wool Innovation, a grower-funded wool body, has designed an alternative with the help of shearing contractors and high-end shearers.
It is a device that sends a sheep near the shearer, who only needs to press a button for the animal to tip out almost into position to be sheared.
Naracoorte engineering business operator Chris Haynes said the machine took the grip and drag aspect out of cutting.
He has started building the modules and shipping them to shearing bins around Australia.
The orders were received after the technology was demonstrated at a recent wool industry day in Conargo, New South Wales.
“All I know about sheep is that they make good socks and they taste good,” Haynes joked.
“But I know a lot about engineering.”
Technology changes the game
At the push of a button, the pneumatically powered module leaves the race and tilts the sheep into an ideal position for the shearer, who then only has to grab it and pull it about a meter.
It also reduces the risk of shearer injury when dragging a sheep.
Shearer Ella Picker, 25, was impressed with the technology.
“Being a bit smaller with not as much muscle as a typical shearer, it’s really handy with grip and pull because it seems to tire you out after a long time, especially when you’re shearing sheep that are much bigger than me .” said Mrs. Picker.
Deniliquin logging contractor Sam Walker was also impressed.
“You don’t have to find a head to pull the sheep up, anything like that, and it’s there ready to go,” he said.
“It’s a pretty comfortable way to grab a sheep and just tip it on its side, and you’re in a good-to-go position.”
He hoped technology would make it easier for shearers to stay in the trade for longer.
Walker said the new machine was one of the biggest advances he had seen in the industry in his 15 years as a shearer.
There are also other devices that help reduce the daily physical hassle of cutting.
Bill Byrne from Peak Hill in New South Wales is seeing strong sales for his invention, a shearing platform that also lifts a sheep into position and holds it in place while it is sheared at waist height.
“I think there will be a gradual transition to lighter cutting through the use of these machines,” Mr Byrne said.
Changes are happening, but the complexity of sheep shearing is such that it is more of an evolution than a revolution.
Mr. Reichelt will soon celebrate 50 years as a shearer.
He has yet to try the new technologies, but is eager to do so.
“It will be a good thing for young people and even for old people like me,” he said.
Watch this story on ABC TV landline at 12.30pm on Sunday, or on ABC iview.