A long-touted alternative to surgical mulesing will be available commercially this season after more than 10 years of development.
The process, developed by veterinarian John Steinfort, involves using liquid nitrogen to freeze off skin wrinkles, similar to the way doctors remove warts.
Mulesing traditionally involved cutting strips of skin away from a lamb’s breech to prevent the build-up of faeces, which can attract blowflies that lay maggots.
Critics have long argued that mulesing was cruel, but farmers said it was the lesser of two evils because it could prevent sheep deaths from flystrike.
A long time in the making
John Steinfort started working on the process he has coined ‘steining’ in 2008, at the height of the debate around mulesing.
“It’s a process of pinching the skin either side of the breech and either side of the tail,” he said.
“It’s done by a handpiece that applies a pre-set dose of liquid nitrogen to the tented skin to freeze it to minus 50 degrees Celsius.
“That causes ice crystals to form in the cells and as those ice crystals form, the cells go through a degenerative process and over a 60 to 90 day period, the whole skin area contracts and forms an eschar.”
Mr Steinfort said steining delivered similar results to traditional mulesing but was less painful and lambs recovered more quickly.
“At the time of application there is a stinging effect on the animal, just like when we go to a doctor and get skin lesions removed from our skin,” he said.
Steining did not fall within the Australian Wool Exchange’s (AWEX) definition of mulesing, meaning the wool could be sold as non-mulesed wool at a premium of up to 50 cents a kilogram.
But the process is more expensive for farmers — $5 per animal compared to around $1.20 for surgical mulesing.
Despite the extra cost, Mr Steinfort said there was “extraordinary interest” in steining, particularly in the western district of Victoria.
Farmers happy with the results
The Brewis family at Karabeal, near Hamilton, started trialling steining for animal welfare reasons and to access premium wool markets.
Coby Brewis said it had been a great success.
“Straight off the cradle they’re drinking off their mothers, they’re feeding and there’s less mismothering, so they certainly recover much more quickly.”
Mark Wootton from Jigsaw Farms, also near Hamilton, has been trialling steining for two seasons.
“There was an animal welfare concern and we did see that on the horizon there was going to be an issue [with marketing wool for mulesed sheep],” he said.
“We could also see from an economics point of view that the weight gain was advantageous.
Mr Wootton said the results had far exceeded his expectations.
“We would never look back to be honest and we’re very optimistic that it was the right call,” he said.
Will European processors support steining?
Some of the loudest calls to end mulesing have come from Italy, a major buyer of Australian wool.
Italian Wool Trade Association president Piercarlo Zedda there was a shortfall in non-mulesed wool on the Australian market and buyers were turning to countries like South Africa and New Zealand.
Mr Zedda said AWEX’s decision that steining met the criteria for non-mulesed wool meant the European industry would “most likely support it”.
“But we can’t speak on behalf of our customers and they will have the last word as each brand has a different approach to animal welfare,” he said.
Clothing brand says steining offers promise
Clothing company Kathmandu is a vocal proponent of animal welfare and only uses wool from sheep that have not been mulesed.
Spokesperson Helen McCombie said it was too early to say whether Kathmandu would accept wool from sheep that had received liquid nitrogen treatment.
“While we welcome steining as a promising alternative that can reduce the risk of flystrike, we will need to review this method in detail to ensure that … it does provide positive health or welfare benefits to the animal,” she said.
“Unless we have done our due diligence to understand this method, further referencing standards and best animal husbandry practices, we will not be putting this in front of our customers.”