At this time of year, western Victorian farmer Alan Bennett should be on the header and his 12,500 sheep should be well and truly shorn.

Key points:

  • Shearers are in short supply across the country
  • Alan Bennett is two months late finishing his spring shearing
  • Spring shearing is generally considered a month behind schedule

But that is not the case this year — the shearer shortage means he is trying to juggle both operations at once.

Around the country wool producers are desperately trying to secure shearers from an ever-shrinking workforce.

Alongside an extensive cropping program, Mr Bennett runs about 7,000 merino ewes on his property between Nhill and Kaniva.

This year, he is alternating between the header, the truck and the shearing shed.

His daughter helps to deal with the shearing while his son operates another header.

“This is the latest we’ve ever shorn,” Mr Bennet said.

“We were supposed to have contractors come in October, and then they were going to come in early November, and then they just said they couldn’t come this year.

“Some locals put their hand up to shear … we’re very thankful for that, so we’ll get all our shearing done, albeit two months later than we should have.

Man standing in sheep yards with sheep

It’s all hands on deck at Alan Bennett’s farm.(ABC Rural: Angus Verley)

Shearers writing own tickets

Mr Bennett said shearers used to be more inclined to do whatever work was on offer locally, but now they tended to chase the most lucrative work.

“The shearers can make that choice, whereas years ago all the local sheep were shorn by locals,” he said.

“But now there just aren’t those locals looking to shear, so we rely on contractors coming in from outside the district.

“Our sheep are a lot plainer than they were 20 years ago, but they’re still big animals and you’ve still got to drag them out and handle them and there’s a bit of surface area to get over.

“There are a lot of crossbreds and smaller merinos to be shorn elsewhere, so they’d definitely be shearing more in other places.”

Mr Bennett said he felt social media also played a role in exacerbating the shortage.

“Shearers can get on Facebook or whatever and see what their friends are doing elsewhere,” he said.

An older fellow with an armful of wool in a shed.

Wool handlers are also in short supply.(ABC Rural: Angus Verley)

Vax mandate not helping

Shearing Contractors’ Association of Australia (SCAA) chief executive Jason Letchford estimated shearing was running four weeks behind schedule.

“Four weeks can be make or break for people if there’s an onset of blowflies now and then you have to wait four weeks before you get the shearing team there,” he said.

Mr Letchford said the vaccine mandate in Victoria was making matters worse.

“There is more than a handful of shearers unvaccinated,” he said.

“I could tally up a number just short of 40, so even if we double that, it’s maybe 70 or 80, which is about 10 per cent of the workforce in Victoria.

Wool bales

Alan Bennett has plenty of shearing to get through and it’s getting harder every year.(ABC Rural: Angus Verley)

‘Tough gig’, but rewarding

The award rate for a shearer is $3.32 per sheep, but the SCCA is recommending a 15 per cent increase on that and many farmers are paying more than $5.

Mr Bennett is also paying a substantial premium on the award and is happy to do so.

“That’s fair enough, I’ve got the greatest respect for shearers — it’s a very tough gig,” he said.

“It’s one of the last of the really hard yakka jobs going around and they earn every dollar they get.”

But Mr Bennett said it was not just a case of throwing more money at the problem.

“Somehow we need to promote shearing as a really good career,” he said.

“For those people who are good at it, it’s very lucrative.

“You can travel the world shearing and meet a lot of people, and there’s a lot of pleasure involved in it — so somehow we just have to try and sell that.”

Posted , updated 

Close shave as wool producers race to get sheep shorn amid shearer shortage
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