Shearing has remained an iconic part of Australian history and identity for more than 200 years - but could you imagine a day where the shears don't go click?
While it won't replace tradition, or the need for shearers entirely, a new Australian Wool Innovation (AWI) funded project in partnership with the University of Adelaide, is looking at biological wool harvesting.
Many woolgrowers would have heard of Bioclip, a biological defleecing process developed by CSIRO made available in the 1990s.
The process allowed wool to be harvested without the use of a mechanical handpiece.
To harvest the wool sheep were instead given a single vaccination of Epidermal Growth Factor that caused a break to occur in the wool fibres.
However, a net had to be placed over the sheep and fleece into which the fleece is shed about one week after the sheep is injected.
It works, but there was little take-up by growers, mainly because the putting on and removal of the nets from sheep made it a labour-intensive project.
This process was what got University of Adelaide chief researcher Phil Hynd thinking - what if a weak point was instead generated in the wool and a non-cutting tool was then used to remove it?
With support of researchers Sarah Weaver and Hue Thi Do, professor Hynd has investigated a different biological approach to Bioclip.
The approach works by generating a weakened zone at the base of the wool fibre and enables fleece to stay on the sheep, without a net, until the wool can be removed.
"Previous attempts at biological wool harvesting concentrated on temporarily stopping wool growth, which resulted in fleece shedding," professor Hynd said.
"In contrast, the new approach is aimed at creating a weakened zone of wool next to the sheep's skin, which enables the fleece to stay on the sheep for several weeks.
"Wool will continue to grow beneath the weak point, so as to protect the sheep from hypothermia and sunburn after the fleece above the weak point is harvested."
Professor Hynd said wool could be harvested above the weak point for a time after treatment that is convenient for the woolgrower, between two to six weeks.
Despite the weak point having very low staple strengths of less than 10N/kt he said trials showed wool did not fall off in the paddock under normal grazing conditions.
"While each staple is weak, when combined with others the total force to break them all is relatively high," he said.
"This is very important because it means that we can now aim treatments to reduce staple strengths to very low levels which will ensure that all treated sheep are harvestable."
Earlier trials used feeding to administer a protein, however a new project has since looked at administering the treatment via injection on crossbred, composite and Merino sheep.
Professor Hynd said in reality the feeding method was never going to work because you could not rely on sheep to feed themselves the exact amount producers wanted them to take.
He said a subcutaneous injectable had been developed based on bodyweight in a similar manner to how doses were calculated for drenching.
It was a breakthrough for the research team and has shown promising results in productivity.
To date trials have been undertaken in 100 sheep of different breeds and sizes, and have proven incredibly consistent in wool removal, except for in hairs around the face.
"There will be issues if producers have to do a tidy up there," professor Hynd said.
"Or it could go through a natural cycle where it falls off in the paddock.
"In some ways that's a good thing, because everything you harvest off that sheep is wool, not wool contaminated with hair."
Next, the research team needs to find a supplier of the compound they had control over, which is currently being sourced out of America.
They have worked out how to extract the compound from natural legume seeds in Australia, however they need to gain control of that extraction of the protein.
The next big step is to develop a removal device that will break the fibre at the weak point and remove fleece without the need for cutting equipment.
AWI is seeking proposals to develop mechanical/automated solutions to harvest weakened wool from engineers and researchers.
Professor Hynd said one machine had been trialled, which was a reciprocating blunt blade that worked by moving up and down quickly.
"It has a plate on the bottom that holds the skin down and breaks the wool - the wool just peels off infront of the machine," he said.
"We are pretty excited by that and we have had a few setbacks, trialling it on different types of wool, but we have proven it can work.
"We now have to get the right machine that will deal with all types of wool in all types of skin types and so on."
Professor Hynd said while the handheld device wasn't the end point, it was a good starting point.
He said anyone could be operated by unskilled labour and required less labour than shearers, who often do 2000 manipulations in the process of shearing a sheep.
"They just run the device at high speed across the sheep and the wool peels off.
"The sheep feels nothing, there's no pain because that's what the machine does - it picks up small pieces of wool and breaks it at high speed.
"It could be possible to mount a vacuum system on the front of the device, which will then suck the wool away from the sheep.
"The real breakthrough would be automating the process so that wool can be harvested very quickly from large numbers of sheep in a high throughput system with very low labour input."
So how will bioharvesting work for producers?
Professor Hynd said a slow-release pellet would be injected into the sheep, which releases the University of Adelaide's active agent.
He said it would administer the exact amount for the bodyweight and class of sheep being dealt with, as well as the time of wool removal.
"That injection will go under the skin and producers can dial up as to when they want to remove the wool," professor Hynd said.
"It will depend on the wool breaking machine as to how far we can go out.
"We do know if you wait for 10 weeks, the wool becomes too long to break and machines struggle."
Providing a sense of the timeline, professor Hynd said there was still 12-18 months of work to be done on the compound to prove its safety and efficacy.
"We will be working towards optimising the dose, optimising the way it is injected and the form it is injected," he said.
"Then it will need to go through an entire process with the APVMA, which could take up to two years.
"By then, hopefully a commercial system would have been developed to remove the wool.
"So I would conservatively say we are looking at a four to five-year period before this technology becomes available."
Professor Hynd said the breakthrough technology was needed by the sheep industry, not to replace shearers, but to offer an alternative to woolgrowers.
"Maybe they can't get shearers when they want them or do their shearing when they want to," he said.
"This gives industry control, which is a good thing.
"Every industry I look at in agriculture has efficient labour saving technology where the producer has control of the product in its quality.
"And if an industry like wool is going to survive and flourish, you're going to need this kind of technology in your bag."
AWI chairman Jock Laurie said the project was all about providing wool harvesting options for woolgrowers.
"It is part of a three-prong attack to address woolgrowers' access to shearers," Mr Laurie said.
"One - shearer training which is critical, two - shed design work to make it easier to shear sheep, and three - bio harvesting, which is in the early stages of research."
Mr Laurie added, "the investment has been absolutely critical to industry, but at the same time I don't ever see a day that shearers won't be needed in a shearing shed".
"We love them, they are a great part of our industry and they will be here for a long time," he said.
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