The wisdom of a woolly
Though wrapped in wool all his life, Mal Nicholls has nonetheless taken a few knocks along the way, which have only made him a better advisor for growers.
The Elders district wool manager for Gippsland, Mr Nicholls’ focus is on lifting the profitability of his clients. In practice that means three things: helping shape the flock itself, presenting the wool and meeting the market.
Over a career spanning half a century, he’s become immensely qualified in all three.
Having grown up on the family farm at Stradbroke, a young Mr Nicholls was spoilt for choice when it came to a career in wool. Straight out of school, he landed a job with Elders at the Melbourne Wool Store, which he turned down in favour of working on a 6000-Merino sheep property and a Poll Dorset stud closer to home and his local football team.
Next, a stint of “awesome, dangerous fun” blowing up tree stumps on the grazing property of a spinning mill led to crutching work ahead of a shearing team, which then came up for sale.
“A mate of mine who was a reasonably new shearer and I bought the shearing company,” Mr Nicholls said.
“So, pretty much straight after getting a wool classing ticket, I was classing the wool of about 30,000 sheep around home, which we built up to 65,000.”
Just seven years after leaving school, Mr Nicholls and his wife-to-be, Anne, bought a 215-hectare property that became home for almost 20 years but radical shifts beyond the gate brought change again.
“The floor price for wool collapsed,” he said.
“I’d bought more land and we were paying up to 21.5 per cent interest on that and, at the same time, 28pc to Wool Corp to look after the wool. That was just unsustainable.”
He had already been training shed hands for the Australian Wool Corporation and, a Merino man at heart, was an active member of the breed society, so it was a logical step to join Elders as what Mr Nicholls fondly calls a “woolly”.
The job involves strategic advice on genetics, ram purchases, sheep classing, marketing strategy and in-shed advice.
“It’s not as simple as just sending your wool to Melbourne and having it fall in the auction and then and then getting the cheque at the end of it,” he said.
The district wool manager works with growers and classers to parcel wool into lots that maximise returns by matching demand as closely as possible to the needs of buyers.
“You need to know how a buyer operates what their orders from the mill are likely to be,” Mr Nicholls said.
“If I’ve got a grower who’s got 20 to 30 bales of the same type of wool, that’s 20-30pc of a wool buyer’s lot, so it really influences the outcome and most buyers would rather put in something that probably only had a 10pc influence.”
On the other hand, he said, it was about ensuring that lots weren’t so small that handling costs outweighed the added value of a special line.
The industry, he said, needed to deal with consumer concerns regarding animal welfare, as well as the availability of shearers.
“We’ve got to make the job easier for young people to be better or more attractive for young people to enter because while we’re wanting to move the Merino industry forward, we have to be able to get the wool off them when we want,” Mr Nicholls said.
“Both from a non-mulesing point of view and to make the sheep more acceptable to shearers, we need to continue to progress towards reasonably plain-skinned, free-growing sheep.”
Still, after 28 years with Elders and a lifetime in wool, Mr Nicholls remained a true wool purist.
“I just love the job,” he said.
“What I like the most is putting my hands in some nice white crimpy soft wool that just reeks of quality.”
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