'Golden Fleece' bale proves some wool worth much money

04/16/04

SAN ANGELO –A recent story on CNN covered the Australian wool bale that was so valuable it was locked in a bank.

Animals owned by Australian sheep farming brothers, Bim and Richard Goodrich, produced the bale of 11.9 micron wools that shattered all previous records for fineness.

The bale was estimated to be worth a whopping $752,000, but eventually sold for $505,217. That's still a staggering amount, considering good West Texas wools are currently fetching $575 per bale. A bale contains 40 to 50 fleeces.

Chances are, no West Texas wools will be that fine or that valuable according to Dr. Chris Lupton, a Texas Agricultural Experiment Station natural fibers researcher at San Angelo. But, for those wanting to improve their flocks, he's got the same measuring technology available to West Texas producers that the Goodrich brothers used.

"The Goodrich brothers used the OFDA2000, the same instrument we have, to determine what fleeces went into that bale," said Lupton.

"They used the instrument to make their first cut, probably testing each fleece several times. The resulting bale then went to a certified Australian sampling location to be core sampled. That core sample is what they certified the bale on since the OFDA2000 is not approved for commerce."

Lupton said the OFDA2000 fits into a suitcase-sized carrier. It uses automatic image analysis to measure the fineness of fibers. In wool circles, the longer and finer the fiber, the more it's worth. "OFDA" stands for "Optical Fiber Diameter Analyzer" and 2000 is the year it was developed. Thanks to an agreement with the American Sheep Industry Association, producers can access the $65,000 instrument free through Lupton's lab and Producers Marketing Coop. Inc. at Mertzon.

ASI bought six of the instruments and placed them at key sheep-producing locations throughout the United States. A $1.25 per fleece fee pays for the instrument technician's time.

"The OFDA2000 is designed to go to the ranch, and frankly I think ours has been underutilized," said Lupton.

"Ideally, fleece samples are analyzed several days before shearing. But they can be measured at shearing if adequate labor is available. It really doesn't slow down the shearing process if there is enough help. You just place a wool sample on a slide, and the program runs the slide underneath the camera. A minute later, you get fiber diameter and distribution. You also get a profile along the length of the fiber to see how the diameter changes along the length. This information can be useful for some supplemental feeding and general management decisions."

The primary use of the OFDA2000 is to measure fleeces from animals in the field for selection purposes, but Lupton said some use it at shearing to measure fleeces for dividing into quality lots or "lines."

"In all fairness, we have done this a few times with mixed results," said Lupton. "This is a tool designed for identifying finer fleeces. It's really not meant for marketing, but that's what some producers are using it for. One time, we were able to make a producer quite a bit of money because he had plenty of that finer line. Another time, a second producer gained on the fine line, but if he had sold it as it was divided, he would have lost money because most of his wool was coarser."

Though the OFDA2000 isn't designed as a marketing tool, Lupton said PMCI's new Australian "Fleece Scan" is.

The Fleece Scan requires the whole fleece be dropped into the coring machine where 2-mm samples are taken. The samples are solvent-washed before being laser scanned for fineness. PMCI is offering the service at its Mertzon warehouse where fleeces are tested and re-packaged.

"We may have a few producers who are core-testing that may be interested in trying to do something like the Australian brothers did," said the researcher. "We certainly have the genetics within the Rambouillet breed to get way down there, micron-speaking. Furthermore, we now have the technology to quickly and accurately identify these animals with equipment available to anyone. The potential is there to put up some of this ultra-fine wool in America. A domestic effort like this could serve as a flagship for the whole U.S. sheep industry as it has in Australia.

"As it is, we're seeing quite a few West Texas bales in the 17 to 18-micron range selling. But we could certainly help interested producers develop a finer wool clip using this technology. It's nothing we and others haven't been doing in the past, we're now just more accurate and less expensive. "One thing the Australians did prove without a shadow of a doubt, is that some wool is worth quite a lot of money."

Source: Eurekalert & others

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