A rift has opened between sheep and wool bodies, as Meat and Livestock Australia invests in wool-focused research and development projects due to a “lack of progress” by Australian Wool Innovation.
At Australian Sheep and Wool Show’s recent breeders’ dinner, MLA managing director Richard Norton said footrot, Ovine Johnes Disease (OJD) and mulesing risk mitigation were now priorities for the research and development corporation (RDC), after levy payers sought more investment.
“There has been a lack of progress by AWI,” he said.
“The sheepmeat side of the industry has a right to ask AWI what they are doing around productivity given about 50 per cent of Merino ewes are involved in lamb production and all Merino sheep end up in the meat industry.
“(MLA) gets 16.4 cents (for each sheep sold) against AWI’s 2pc wool levy – about $20 a bale.”
First on MLA’s hit list is a footrot antigen, resistant to all serotypes, which has been announced for commercial released by May 2018, following a $1 million investment.
“Nothing like being accountable when you set a date,” Mr Norton said.
“This is work industry has demanded MLA do.”
The molecular biology of the footrot research is being conducted by Monash University, with collaboration from the University of Sydney which is conducting efficacy work at its Cobbitty site near Camden, NSW.
The row between MLA and AWI has hurt the Achilles heel of the industry – mulesing.
Mr Norton likened the mulesing debate to hormone growth promotants (HGPs) in cattle which were banned by the European Union, Russia, China and Coles supermarkets, based on consumer pressure, not scientific evidence.
Similarly, in 2012, the EU introduced mandatory use of anaesthesia for the castration of piglets, with the surgical castration of pigs banned from next year.
“There is no scientific evidence at all, no health impacts, yet consumers have said it is cruel. You don’t have to look far to work out why the consumer is king,” Mr Norton said.
“This is a global macro trend and we’re not immune to it and just need to tell the story.”
Mr Norton said MLA would work with Sheepmeat Council of Australia to develop a mulesing strategic direction for the sheepmeat industry this year.
Also on MLA’s agenda is researching the genome sequencing of sheep resistant to OJD, which is being solely financed by private and government funding.
Traditionally, Mr Norton said investment in footrot research and mulesing alternatives was the domain of AWI, however following producer consultation, greater progress needed to be made.
Mr Norton accused AWI of “stepping back” from genetic evaluation.
“AWI no longer supports the Australian Sheep Industry Co-operative Research Centre, and it no longer supports sheep genetics, despite these underpinning their Lifetime Ewe Management Project (LTEM),” he said.
“It is obvious MLA is now carrying the load around genetics and now Merino breeders want us to address footrot - people need to join the dots.”
“AWI has been critical of the red meat industry for not investing in (controlling) wild dogs, yet we will be investing up to $10 million to the wild dogs issue.
“MLA is not an ATM - you can’t just withdraw money. We need to find ways to leverage investments through universities and other funding providers and work collaboratively to address these major issues.”
At dispute is whether the levy groups are working productively together as the rise of the dual purpose Merino blurs the line between a sheep and wool enterprise.
“This demonstrates the need for meat and wool industry to work together for the productivity benefits of Australia sheep producers,” Mr Norton said.
AWI chief executive Stuart McCullough was “disappointed” Mr Norton made the comments to the media.
“In my eight years as chief executive officer at AWI I am unable to remember the head of another RDC using the media to critique the programs of another,” Mr McCullough said.
“This precedence is unfortunate and we are disappointed that Mr Norton has chosen such a path.”
He said many of Mr Norton’s statements were “simply false”. He urged him to read the various independent cost benefit studies across AWI’s major projects.
In a statement to Fairfax Media, AWI stated Mr Norton was factually wrong regarding LTEM, with the sheep extension program underpinned by Lifetime Wool research not sheep genetics, which has a return of $13-$44 for every dollar invested.
AWI said nearly $7m had been invested in combating wild dogs from 2011 to 2013, of which $3m was funded by AWI, with a return of $8.60 for every dollar spent.
It said AWI had invested “many millions” of dollars in genetics and genomics over the last decade, with the latest a $4m commitment over nine years to the Merino Lifetime Productivity Project.
The statement said AWI, and the University of Sydney, evaluated specific footrot vaccine but did not specify the total funds allocated.