A South Otago couple believe their goats produce cashmere as good as anywhere in the world, Rob Tipa reports.
Cashmere is the forgotten fibre of New Zealand hill country farming, but for one South Otago couple, reviving the dormant cashmere industry represents an outstanding opportunity for goat farmers.
David and Robyn Shaw, who farm a 400ha lamb and beef finishing farm on hill country near Clinton, have stuck with goats since the boom and bust days of pastoral farming in the mid-1980s and have never lost faith in cashmere as a top fashion fibre.
David Shawstarted with a small mob of multi-coloured feral stock on his family’s farm near Clydevale. After 35 years of selective breeding, the couple are now producing cashmere they believe is equal to the finest fibre grown anywhere in the world.
“We found that our own fibre was as fine as anything coming out of China,” Shaw says.
We know that our fibre is longer, whiter and brighter than fibre produced by leading producers in China and it is actually softer for the equivalent micron range because our animals get better nutrition.”
The couple were surprised when tests showed they were producing cashmere as fine as 12 microns, with doe hoggets producing fleeces averaging 14.6 microns and does producing fleeces in the 16 micron range.
Historically, China and Mongolia have supplied international fashion markets with cashmere, a market expected to generate US$3.1 billion by 2022. The market’s current annual growth rate of 3.86 per cent is expected to increase for at least the next five years.
However, producers in these countries are facing challenges dealing with climate change, desertification, over-stocking and a resultant decline in fibre quality.
Shaw says 14 micron cashmere only represents about 2 per cent of China’s total cashmere production, so it is scarce and in demand at the high-value end of the market for the manufacture of luxury garments.
The Shaws see these market trends as an “amazing opportunity” for cashmere producers in both New Zealand and Australia because animals here are generally well fed on pastoral land, as opposed to the arid regions of China and Mongolia.
Shaw’s interest in goats stems from his time studying agriculture at Lincoln College and two years at the University of Minnesota in the United States.
He returned to the family farm at Wharetoa and competed with distinction in the Young Farmer of the Year awards, finishing third and runner-up in consecutive national finals during the 1980s.
He also completed a Kelloggs Rural Leadership course in 1989 and served two terms on the board of Silver Fern Farms from 2007 during a tumultuous time for the meat industry.
He is a strong advocate of the co-operative business model and was vice-chairman of Co-operative Business New Zealand.
He regards cashmere as the forgotten fibre of New Zealand farming.
The stigma of the goat industry boom and crash during the 1980s lingers, as many farmers who diversified into goats had their fingers burnt.
By the mid-1980s one in six Kiwi farms ran some goats and goat numbers in this country peaked at 1.34 million in 1988.
While most Kiwi farmers bailed out of goats altogether, the Shaws stuck to their guns, building on the hardy feral and cashmere production.
The market crash gave them a unique opportunity to pick through the best feral goats on the market and they also secured the nucleus of several high-profile New Zealand flocks run by some of the best cashmere breeders in the country.
“The reason we stuck with it was, although we weren’t selling much fibre at the time, the production gains we made in the fibre were quite astounding really,” Shaw says.
“The heritability of traits is very high so if you have an approved animal, the likelihood of it passing its traits to its progeny are really good.”
Now, 30 years on, demand for top quality cashmere remains almost insatiable, international markets are stable and buyers around the world are still paying premium prices for the best fibre.
“Two years ago we started to look for a solution to the fibre market,” Shaw says. “We were really reluctant to give up nearly 30 years of genetic gain because we knew what we had.
“The world has changed but the value, the prestige and the positioning of cashmere hasn’t,” he adds.
Today run-of-the-mill, mid-range micron cashmere sells for about US$100 a kilogram on international markets.
Over the past 12 months the Shaws have invested a lot of time and effort into researching the state of the industry and are excited about their findings.
In November they were invited to an international cashmere conference in Italy, where they met breeders, manufacturers and fashion houses from all over the world.
That trip gave them the confidence to establish a new brand, New Zealand Cashmere, to fill the void left by companies that left the industry during the 1980s.
The company is now working closely with two other New Zealand based companies, leisure fashion house Untouched World and yarn manufacturers Woolyarns, both pivotal in developing possum-merino blends for the luxury wool market.
The Shaws are excited by the prospect of exporting their best cashmere to world markets and are encouraging any farmers who still have goats to join them in this venture.
“We haven’t really seen a hurdle yet,” Shaw says. “There are no obstacles to us producing the fibre, we just need more of it.”
He says the industry has changed significantly. Instead of feral goats producing 40 to 50 grams of cashmere, the best of his flock are now producing 300 grams of fibre and producing returns as good as those made off a sheep flock.
“Previously an animal producing 200 grams of cashmere at 17 microns was special. Today we have animals doing 300 grams in the 15 micron range and we know there’s an opportunity to push that even more,” he says.
“A goat can potentially produce over $40 worth of cashmere compared to a ewe today producing 5kg of wool for $2.50 a kg ($12 a ewe) and no dagging or crutching.”
Farmers are pragmatic people, he says. For them to change what they are doing, any venture has to either save them money or make them money.
New Zealand has seen significant change in land use over the last 30 years, but it still has 6.5 million hectares of hill country and there are not a lot of options for farmers other than pastoral farming.
Shaw believes hill country farmers have an “amazing opportunity” to generate good returns by running a portion of their stock numbers in cashmere goats, with the added benefit of weed control, pasture improvement and enhanced sheep and beef performance.
The Shaws regard their hardy, low-input goat flock as an integral part of their intensive sheep and beef finishing operation.
Their does are naturally fertile, kidding at up to 180 per cent a year and putting more doe kids on the ground this season than the numbers of does mated last autumn.
“We find the goats fit into our farming system, enhancing our operation by controlling weeds, eating thistles and promoting clover growth, all of which benefits our other stock,” Shaw says.
Goats tend to browse on plants other stock avoid, preferring the fibrous material of seedheads and the flowers of gorse and thistles, then working their way down the plant.
He believes they have a huge role to play on many farms, controlling pasture weeds, briar, broom and wilding pines, turning them from a liability into a source of income and reducing the costs of weed control.
But he qualifies their advantages with the condition that you can’t farm goats unless you can control them.
“They are very intelligent and inquisitive and that gets them into trouble,” he says. “You don’t put deer behind a sheep fence and expect them to stay there. And you don’t put bulls on a farm without electricity.”
He says goats are no different and farmers need to invest in fencing to control them. They respect electricity and a single outrigger is sufficient to contain them.
The couple run about 5000 stock units on their Waiwera Gorge farm, finishing between 1000 and 1500 cattle and several thousand lambs, depending on the season.
“We have buyers looking for quality fibre and we simply can’t produce enough alone. We require other farmers who can upgrade foundation feral or meat does and buy into this very special market.
Shaw says goats are prolific, so there is an opportunity for farmers to build up numbers quickly to take advantage of rapid genetic gain from their 35 years of selective breeding.
This season they have up to 50 bucks that are available for farmers to get started.
New Zealand Cashmere’s short-term goal of 25,000 goats would produce between five and 10 tonnes of fibre, valued at about $1 million on current prices and could be scaled from there.
China produces between 6000 and 10,000 tonnes of fibre, so Shaw believes local processors and export markets could easily absorb that volume of fibre.
While breeding goats may have started as a hobby for over 30 years ago, he says his cashmere goats are now a competitive option and the meat schedules for selling cull stock are looking pretty good too.
Original article: nzfarmer.co.nz 30 January 2018