A lifetime’s passion in wool for Rex

North East & Goulburn-Murray Farmer
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QUALITY PRODUCT: Eamon Timms, national brokerage and wool technical manager for Fox and Lillie, with Narelle, Rex and Trish Forrest at the wool sales in Laverton, as Rex celebrates 50 years as a wool classer.

REX Forrest of Rosstulla Holdings in Beechworth was recently recognised for his outstanding contribution to the wool industry, with a stencil awarded by the Australian Wool Exchange for 50 years of continuous registration in wool classing.

On the day the Forrests visited Melbourne to celebrate the award, one of their lines of merino fleece also topped the market in the Elders Melbourne M22 catalogue.

Sixteen microns was the highly sought-after wool, and it was the perfect icing on the cake for a man who has devoted his lifetime to this labour-intensive industry.

Fifty years is an incredible achievement in dedication and commitment, and Rex has witnessed a great amount of change over the decades and adapted throughout.

Topping the market is further affirmation that the Forrests – Rex, Trish and daughter Narelle – know their business and is a just reward in their pursuit of excellence.

The quality of their wool has been recognised on numerous occasions, with the recent top price not an isolated incident.
What is relatively new, however, is an accolade for best prepared clip in the Elders catalogue, which they received in late 2018.

“There are many occasions that we have won top prices for sale, both with our lambs’ wool and our fleece wool, however, the 2018 award was the first time for best presented clip,” Rex said.

Singled out for the certificate, the Forrests were incredibly proud of the achievement as it validated their stringent policies on cleanliness when shearing.

“We clean up all the sheep before shearing,” Rex said.

“All the dags are removed and the stains, and then we wash the shearing shed floor and clean it all down, and that’s how we get such clean wool.”

“Our policy is that all wool coming through the shed is clean and uncontaminated, and classed properly and ultimately presented properly,” Trish said.

“It’s nice to win this acknowledgement for our hard work.”

“And sheep are a lot of hard work,” Rex added.

“If you don’t love sheep, you’re better off without them.”

It’s lucky that Rex, Trish and Narelle have that love of sheep and that passion for the wool industry.

Narelle is fourth generation sheep farming, and as her father proudly said “she has a very good feel for wool, which I’m incredibly pleased about”.

“It’s an inherited talent,” Trish said with a smile.

“It’s the ability to be able to look at the wool, to feel it, and just understand what you’ve got and what you’re looking for,” Rex said.

This is the understanding and the talent that Rex has not only passed on to his daughter but also brought to his 50 years of classing and his decades of breeding sheep for their fleece.

The Forrests run a small self-replacing flock of fine wool merinos, joining about 600 ewes.

Their goal is a consistent 18 to 19 micron soft white long wool from their stock, and this is something they are achieving the majority of the time.

“We’re pretty much doing it,” Trish said.

However, it is an ongoing process for the Forrests, who are always looking around trying to improve their flock.

“Our initial genetics 30 years ago were from a Merryville base and then we didn’t really do any outcrosses for decades,” Rex said.

“It’s only in more recent times that we have introduced rams from East Roseville, Bindawarra, Toland Merinos and currently from the Borambil Stud, between Corowa and Mulwala.

“Our main challenge is to find rams that will do in our conditions, in an area that has relatively high rainfall for fine wool sheep.

“We are very careful to select rams that aren’t going to let the water in, and at the moment our Borambil rams are serving the purpose.”

Each ram is mated individually, so that the Forrests know how they are tracking and are able to move the rams on if they’re not performing.

As they are honing what is already a genetically-superior flock, any sheep that fail to meet the Forrests’ strict criteria are removed from the group.

“The lower the base the faster you can improve your flock, however, as we have such a strong base it takes a long time to change the genetics and we’re at the point where it’s fine-tuning and tweaking, and it can be quite an exact science,” Trish said.

The exact science continues onto the feeding regime the Forrests embrace for their sheep.

“We have chosen 18 and 19 microns as our goal with the wool, as the sheep are easier to look after,” she said.

“We can maintain the quality.

“The 16 micron wool that we won top price for was from a young sheep, but as microns change as the sheep get older, to continue with such fine wool we would have to really restrict the animals’ feed intake and we aren’t really interested in doing that.

“And then the concern that if the quality of feed isn’t consistent then the wool becomes tender.”

Maintaining the consistency of the wool is a major concern for the Forrests, beginning to feed their young sheep early in the season so that they don’t slip in condition.

“When the grass begins to dry off the younger sheep are not like the older sheep and used to handling the tough times, so we feed them so they retain their weight,” Rex said.

“This ensures that we keep the tensile strength in the fibre, and reduces the risk of tender wool.

“We also make sure that there is a gradual transition for all sheep from green feed to dry feed if we can.

“Due to the nature of their stomachs and the micro-organisms, and the way their bodies process different types of feed any change needs to be slow.”

It’s a complicated job, and when fertility becomes part of the equation – driving income with the prospect of surplus sheep – wool becomes somewhat of a juggling act.

It is a changing industry, and whereas 10 years ago surplus sheep didn’t earn good dollars at the abattoirs and shedded sheep only commanded paddock prices, there are now significant markets for both.

What were initially low value items – bellies, crutching and the like – now have a value, and the price has risen remarkably.

“With these changes now we have to class differently and separate differently,” Rex said.

“I always talk to the experts, to the guys who are selling the wool, and I find out what the current trend and demand is and I class accordingly.”

However, Rex isn’t opposed to the changes in the industry, for him it is all about staying on top of his game, and taking pleasure in seeing his daughter Narelle follow in his footsteps.

“I’m finding it a little bit difficult to pass the wool classing baton on though,” Rex said.

“But I can be pretty pig-headed and she has a gift for it, and I don’t want that to be lost.”

More farming news and stories can be read in the February, 2020 print edition of North East & Goulburn-Murray Farmer or click here to access digital editions.