By Andrew Woods | Source: ABS, BAE, ABARE, AWEX, AWTA, ICS
The Australian wool clip has changed dramatically during the past 30 years, since the late 1980's wool boom and subsequent crash of the Reserve Price Scheme. Wool in Australia is grown across a number of quite different geographic regions with varying environments and challenges. As part of looking at wool production in different regions, this article focuses on the Queensland wool clip.
Like the national clip, wool volumes have fallen in Queensland since the late 1980s, although the fall of 93% (in greasy terms) has been greater than for the overall clip. Figure 1 shows the volume of the Queensland clip and the Queensland proportion of the national clip from 1917 through to 2017. At the end of the 1980s boom the Queensland supply jumped up to around 106 m kg greasy, on par with the levels produced from the late 1950s through to 1970. From the early 1970s through to 2000 the Queensland clip made up 7-9% of the national clip. Since 2000, production has fallen by three quarters and now accounts for 2.5-3% of the national clip in greasy terms. In clean terms, the Queensland clip is now on par with the Tasmanian clip.
Figure 2 shows Queensland beef cattle and sheep numbers from 1971 onwards. From the late 1980s, beef cattle numbers lifted by around 50% (before drought pushed numbers down from 2014 onwards) while sheep numbers fell by around 90%. Crop area in Queensland has been volatile but trendless since the last 1980s, so the increase in beef numbers account for most of the reduction in sheep numbers.
Within this major change in wool production in Queensland, what has happened to wool quality? Figure 3 compares the monthly fibre diameter for merino wool sold from Queensland and for Australia as a whole, from the mid-1990s onwards. While the Queensland merino average fibre diameter has had some violent fluctuations, with major droughts typically pulling the micron markedly lower, it has followed the general lead of the national clip. The Queensland merino average micron looks to be around 0.5 micron broader than the national average, when the effect of seasonal conditions is neutral.
Table 1 compares general average wool specifications (all breeds) between Queensland and Australia for the 2016-17 wool selling season. Like other pastoral regions, the Queensland wool clip is predominantly merino, in the order of 97% during the past year compared to 80% for the national clip. Keep this in mind when looking at Table 1, especially for the average fibre diameter. The AWTA Key Test Data (view here) shows lot size, staple length and strength to be on par with the national clip. Bale weights are above the national average as is vegetable fault. Yield is lower.
The 90% fall in the Queensland flock since the early 1990s has pulled Queensland wool production to its lowest level in a century, by a long way. In terms of wool quality the Queensland clip is on par with the national average, with some extra vegetable fault which is typical of pastoral zones and around half a micron broader than the national merino average. Anecdotal feedback indicates the Queensland flock and clip would stabilise, at worst, or increase, at best, if seasonal conditions allowed. The fall in the beef cattle herd shows the effect of dry times in recent years.
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