Cathcart fine wool takes top honours

A fine wool Merino ewe on Highlands farm, Cathcart, has brought international recognition to father-and-son team Bruce and Stuart Dewing, after being awarded second place in the prestigious Ermenegildo Zegna Vellus Aureum Challenge
in Australia.
Issue Date: 31 October 2008

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Bruce Dewing with his Zegna ewe and her twins on the farm Highlands in the Cathcart district of the Eastern Cape. It was this Merino ewe’s fine wool fleece that ensured international recognition for the Highlands fine wool flock.

A fine wool Merino ewe on Highlands farm, Cathcart, has brought international recognition to father-and-son team Bruce and Stuart Dewing, after being awarded second place in the prestigious Ermenegildo Zegna Vellus Aureum Challenge
in Australia.

The Dewings use special polyester sheep coats for cleaner, finer,
world-class wool, increasing income with up to R70 a sheep, writes Mike Burgess.

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Soft, clean fine wool with a very fine crimp is what the Dewings are attempting to produce with their fine wool Merinos.

The fleece of a Zegna ewe has put the Dewings in the international spotlight as fine wool producers. The Dewings aim for a fine, soft wool with a fine crimp. The use of sheep coats is management-intensive, but ensures better quality wool.

Sheep coats are put on immediately after shearing and only removed when the sheep are shorn again. Management of these sheep can be more strenuous than expected, explains Stuart. Sheep coats must be continually checked as they can get damaged by fences or trees and then need to be repaired.

AZegna ewe fleece has brought the Dewing family from Cathcart in the Eastern Cape unexpected international recognition as award-winning fine wool producers. They recently entered the South African leg of the Zegna Vellus Aureum (VA) (see box) for fine wool in the category 14 microns to 17,9 microns and took top honours with a 3,13kg fleece that measured 17 microns.

This achievement from among 128 entries resulted in the Dewings being given an all-expenses-paid trip to Sydney, Australia, in April 2008 to compete in the international leg of the same prestigious competition in which they scooped second prize.

The Dewings were then able to take the opportunity to spend an extra week sampling what Australia had to offer. “was lovely, but I wouldn’t like to farm there,” Bruce admits. “It’s a very dry country. I would rather farm in South Africa.” Bruce’s son Stuart’s impression was that in Australia everything is clean and spotless and that everything works. “The Australians are far ahead of us when it comes to fine wool,” says Bruce. “We saw 10 micron fleeces that are unheard of in South Africa. We have always gone for big strong rams with bulky stronger type wool, whereas the Australians have gone for that very super-fine wool which we are only now trying to get to. But we are catching up.”

The Dewing’s Zegna ewe in many ways symbolises both this attempt to catch up and the sweet success of Bruce’s life-long passion to produce top-quality fine wool. Sourcing top fine wool genetics Bruce’s desire to produce wool flourished as soon as he left school in 1964 when he was given the honour by the late Basil Kenyon to work at the National Wool Growers Association in East London.

His passion grew and he knew he would one day produce fine wool. He then returned to Highlands Farm to learn as much as he could from his father and his medium-strong wool stud before inheriting it in 1973. From this point on, Bruce began the long process of genetically restructuring the stud to produce world-class fine wool. This process included the purchase of 500 fine wool ewes and rams from NW Turner & Sons in Middleton, augmented by a number of rams from David Arnold of Saxonholm, Cathcart, to form the genetic base of the Highland’s fine wool flock.

This base was then broadened and refined over the years with 50 of Rodney Austin’s stud sheep from Grahamstown in 2006 (incidentally the international winner of the Ermenegildo Zegna VA Challenge for fleeces measuring 14 to 17,9 micron in the same year), 19 selected ewes from Dr Brian Rippons of Grahamstown in 2007 and most recently, five rams from Wally Sharrat of Harrismith. A winning combination These fine wool genetics have been combined with an environment conducive to the production of clean wool.

Lambs on Highlands produce wool measuring between 14 and 15 micron on average, while mature sheep produce between 17 and 19 micron. “In Cathcart it’s possible to produce a very clean and bright wool. We have high rainfall, good pastures and thick vegetation. To produce a very clean fine wool is far more difficult in the Western Cape or in the maize production areas of the Free State,” explains Bruce. “Producing a speciality type of wool made more sense than producing ordinary wool. And it’s definitely worthwhile financially because today you can get at least R10/kg more for fine wool than for ordinary wool.”

But success has not only been built on the back of genetics and the pristine environment, but also on unique management skills from Stuart, who returned from Saasveld Forestry College situated outside George two years ago. “I studied for four years and completed an agricultural management degree which gave me important grounding,”

Stuart explains. Improving management for better wool It was Stuart who first introduced the use of sheep coats to the Highlands Merino fine wool flock. They were purchased from Jules and Carlie van Aardt in Cookhouse. The sheep coats are 100% polyester, UV-fortified and breathable, allowing the wool to dry with ease underneath.

Recent trials show that the use of sheep coats ensure increases of 1cm in wool length within 10 months, up to 10% higher yields are produced and income is increased by up to R70 a sheep. Bruce says tourists, coming to Highlands to look at the snow, often think the main purpose of the sheep coats is to keep the sheep warm, but the coats are actually used for the production of a cleaner, better quality fine wool. Only selected sheep on Highlands get to wear these sheep coats and the top quality fleeces and bales are then entered into competitions such as the National Wool Growers Association’s Prestige Fine Wool Sale.

The Dewings aim for a fine, soft wool with a fine crimp. “In our experience, the sheep coats make the wool grow finer and faster, sometimes as much as a centimetre more a year. The appearance of the wool is also whiter, not that usual dirty colour,” Stuart explains. “You also get different kinds of fine wool – some doesn’t have a very fine crimp, it’s a broader crimp and that’s exactly what we don’t want.

Top Italian manufacturers want wool with a bright, very fine crimp that feels and tests fine.” The sheep coats are put on the sheep immediately after shearing and then removed the following year when the sheep are shorn again. However, Stuart explains, the management of sheep wearing these sheep coats is far more intense than one would think. “The sheep coats work well, but don’t last. You have to monitor them all the time, because they get damaged by fences or trees and then you need to patch them up,” he says. Contact Bruce or Stuart Dewing on (045) 843 1711. |fw