Courier Mail, The (Brisbane), 29/03/2004, pg. 17

A chance trial has paid off for two Queensland graziers, writes Amanda Gearing

MANY of the greatest scientific discoveries have been made by a combination of chance and necessity.

The creation of the world’s finest and softest wool bale is no exception.

Queensland wool producers have been rocketed to the international stage as producers of the finest wool in the world destined for the high fashion market.

A flock of small-framed merinos grazing on drying native pastures on the sandy rolling hills of the traprock country near Inglewood have written a new chapter in the history of the wool industry that carried Australia on its back for more than 100 years.

Fifth-generation woolgrowers Rick and Bim Goodrich were not intending to create world-beating fine wool at their string of family-owned properties, Warroo Station, Currajong, Pikedale and Terrica, between Inglewood and Warwick.

They just wanted to improve the consistency of colour, strength and fineness of their wool clip by sheltering selected sheep from the extremes of seasonal variations: cold, heat, wind and rain.

“We wanted to take those inconsistencies out to enable us to produce something more predictable,” Rick said.

“We didn’t aim to break records. We were starting to realise buyers wanted consistent wools. We were trying to meet the market.”

Rick, a former Australian champion oarsman and America’s Cup yachtsman, who returned to the family farm in 1993, said the achievement was a significant personal milestone.

“No one else can say they produced the softest wool on Earth. That makes you feel pretty bloody good. Other people have been trying to do this for 50 years,” he said.

His brother Bim Goodrich, who completed a degree in commerce before returning to the family property, said wool growers in the traprock had to work harder than growers in the more fertile New England region to the south to produce good-quality products.

Fineness was not a burning goal since the Goodriches’ flock was already producing wool as fine as 14.5 microns in diameter in the paddock, about a quarter of the diameter of human hair, a fibre so delicate that individual strands are barely visible.

Five years ago, Rick suggested the idea of sheltering some sheep from the ravages of the drought and hard seasons in an experiment among dozens being run on the property to improve the flock and the wool they produce.

No one was more surprised than the Goodrich brothers when routine testing of the 40,000 fleeces revealed the sheltered sheep had produced wool up to 4.5 microns finer than those in the paddock.

More research followed and the Goodriches decided to take the gamble two years ago that the high capital cost of housing sheep indoors and the labor cost for handfeeding them could be outweighed by a premium price if they could produce a bale of outstanding fleece.

Normal returns of $1000 for a 200kg bale of wool would have to be increased substantially to make the project viable.

During shearing in 2002 and 2003, fleece testing revealed extremely fine micron wool.

A bale of the finest fleeces was sent to the Australian Wool Testing Authority in Sydney which certified the fibre averaged 11.9 microns.

Once tested, the bale was consigned to a bank vault where it was kept under guard and shipped to Sydney for the auction.

It was this bale of about 100 fleeces from the 2002 and 2003 wool clip which created the record 11.9 micron bale which sold at auction in Sydney on March 12 for $675,000.

At the auction conducted by Elders Premier Wool, 14 buyers drawn mainly from Australia’s traditional fine wool buyers Italy, Japan and Korea were bidding; but surprisingly they were outbid by a Chinese buyer.

Bidding opened at $1000/kg and headed north to $7500/kg.

Kathaytex wool buyer Frank Yeo, who buys up to 30,000 tonnes of Australian wool for Chinese manufacturers each year, made the successful bid on behalf of the Shanghai-based Hengyuanxiang Group.

“The company told me you must buy this bale for us. If any competitors, they ask me to bid to $1.2 million,” Yeo said.

The world record price paid for superfine wool was $1.2 million set in 1997 for an Australian bale of 12.5-12.9 microns sold to a Japanese company.

The Hengyuanxiang Group has invited the Goodriches to China to celebrate the purchase.

“For thousands of years people have used wool. This has never happened on Earth. It’s the first time for such a fine wool. China has never bought this before. We need to celebrate,” Yeo said.

After paying luxury tax to the Australian Government and other costs on top of the raw wool price, the total cost for the bale will be $1.35 million by the time it lands in China.

The raw, or greasy, wool would yield about 50kg of woollen yarn worth $34,000/kg, Yeo said.

The buyer has kept their plans for the bale secret but Yeo expected special orders would be taken. Specialist designers would then be employed to weave fabric for high-fashion suits that would retail for $50,000-$100,000 each, probably for sale in 2006-2008 in time for the Olympic Games in China.

Rick is encouraged to continue his indoor wool growing.

“I was concerned that the shed would not be profitable. Now at least I have some encouragement we might get a return out of it,”
he said. “The price hasn’t returned a profit yet but it’s a bloody good help.

“We were particularly delighted because we saw breaking the 12 micron barrier as a way to launch our Primerino brand.”

The Goodriches are hoping that branding their wool will help improve their returns on the rest of their 800 bale annual wool clip.

Having succeeded in their quest, they are unsure of achieving the same outcome with the next wool season but they are assured by the number of active bidders that there is a significant market.

The Goodriches’ secrets of success are guarded from competitors who are keen to lift their wool value from the going rate of about $6.50/kg.

No one is allowed near the Goodriches’ shed where the animals are housed and their diet and management procedures are kept in-house.

Keeping the sheep relaxed and stress-free is important. With humans, stress can result in hair loss or lack of shine. In sheep, the same theory applies.

Rick selects the sheep with the finest and softest wool after each shearing to go in the shed where they stay until shearing the following year.

There’s not a lot of theory behind the piped music in the shed but it hasn’t done the sheep any harm.

Two full-time sheep handlers working with them tune in to Radio Triple J and the sheep listen in.

After serving a year in the shed, the sheep are rotated back to the paddock, where they are covered with a coat to protect their fleece from grass seeds and dust, while others take their turn for
a year of pampering, handfeeding and piped music.

The Goodrich flock is descended from Saxon sheep from southeastern Germany that were selected by Bim and Rick’s great-great-grandfather Fred Bracker, a sheep breeder, who brought them to Australia in 1829.

Saxon merinos are the smallest of the merino breeds with the lowest weight in wool but having bright white fleeces that are soft and fine.

Bracker was known as the father of the pastoral industry in Queensland for his selection of 200 pedigree Saxon merinos from the flocks of Prince Esterhazy of Silesia for a NSW grazier.

Bracker moved to the Darling Downs to manage Rosenthal Station where he was in charge of breeding a bloodline from Camden Billy, one of John MacArthur’s flock and German Billy from the Silesian flock.

He arrived at Inglewood in 1842 with some of the Saxon sheep and selected Warroo, a 12,000ha holding of his own.

Bracker’s daughter Mary married John Goodrich and the property has remained in the family ever since.

Copyright 2004 / Courier Mail