NORRIS, Mont. – The Montana State University Sheep Extension Program hosted its two-day wool handling school earlier this month at the Montana Wool Lab in Bozeman and the Red Bluff Research and Teaching Ranch in Norris.

“The purpose of the Wool School is to help more producers get a higher value by classing wool as it’s shorn instead of taking it as one group,” said Jesse Thompson, executive director of the Montana Wool Growers Association. “They’re trying to help more people get their hands on the wool and be able to tell one quality from the next and to get a higher price out of it.”

Classing and sorting wool as it comes off the shearing floor is nothing new, but industry innovations in fine wool athletic clothing together with last spring’s record high wool prices mean there’s now potentially more money in it.

“There's a very large demand for wool right now,” said MSU Extension Sheep Specialist Brent Roeder. “People are really looking for a sustainable source verified product if they can find it. They’re tired of buying ‘plastic stuff’ from overseas and really looking for a high quality American-made product that that keeps them warm and provides some value and incentive back to America and their consumers and producers.”

Wool base layers are particularly trendy right now.

“A lot of people think of wool as grandpa’s old wool socks but a lot of that’s changing with the new ways to wash the wool, which makes it a softer, thinner material ideal for next-to-skin clothing lines, especially for outdoors people like skiers and snowboarders, farmers and ranchers,” Thompson said. “And it comes from an animal; it’s sustainable, and a lot of people are leaning toward natural, sustainable products these days.”

The March 14 session at the Wool Lab in Bozeman covered wool basics in a classroom setting: biology, genetic selection, testing and processing. The March 15 session at the Red Bluff Research Ranch in nearby Norris was more hands-on, with the group processing wool from the university’s 600 head of sheep. It also covered animal welfare, shearing floor efficiencies, terminology and bag markings, and working the board, skirting table and balers.

“They actually take a sample from each sheep back to the Wool Lab on the MSU campus and measure the fiber diameter, we'll measure that comfort factor, which is the number of fibers that are less than 30 micron,” said Wool Classer Cheryl Schultz, who helped lead the workshop. “Because we want smaller fibers that are more comfortable next to the skin, we'll take a staple length on it and then actually measure it on two different devices.”

The Micron System separates wool into grades according to the average fiber diameter as measured by a micrometer. This information helps buyers purchase the correct quality and type of wool.

Last year’s all-time record high wool prices had to do with international trade demographics. The world’s wool is priced on the Australian dollar and traded on a futures market in Australia, where sheep numbers have dropped by about 50 million head over the last 18 years, Roeder said.

“That’s really benefited Montana and the Northern Great Plains,” Roeder said. “Right now, we are the epicenter of fine wool or quality wool production in the United States.”

Montana is tied with Wyoming for having the most valuable clip in the United States, according to the most recent national agricultural statistics.

“And so, a lot of it is why we do these wool handling schools is basically to maintain that quality of product and production that Montana producers have,” Roeder said. “We have the genetics here, but wool has to be put up properly and packaged properly and it competes on an international basis, so we want to make sure that we're maintaining that quality here in Montana.”

Pollann Bruner runs 250 sheep south of Whitehall, Mont. She attended the wool handling school to learn how to use a skirting table to discard the dirtier parts of the fleece.

“If I have less debris and less short cuttings in my wool, my price goes up,” she said. “It really does improve what you get if you cleaned it up a bit. When I get a core sample done, I've been at about 50 percent debris and oils and things like that, and I think I could improve that factor.”

Locally, the wool classes are a cooperative agreement between MSU Extension, the Animal and Range Science Department and the Red Bluff Research Ranch. On a national level, they're coordinated by the American Sheep Industry Association and the American Wool Council. The emphasis on both the local and national level is teaching producers how to sort, package and label wool to ensure they’re getting the best price for their product from wool buyers.

“We remove the top knot, which is the wool that grows at the very top of the head. It contains fibers that will not absorb die because they're hollow. A wool fiber is actually solid and that's why wool has that warm soft appearance to it. Human hair is shiny because it's hollow and it reflects the light. The wool absorbs light. So, what we put in the wool bail is our best quality wool,” she said. “The skirting process that we're teaching here today is the final step to add some value because we can even remove some of the sweaty locks that are under the front and rear legs of the sheep. We can remove any stained wool. If there's a belly that's damp, we can take it out.”

The parameters – set loosely by the small handful of wool buyers based on feedback from the textile mills in South Carolina and international buyers – change all the time.

“The wool buyers basically make some recommendations on a cutoff for a micron. They might say, based on the market conditions and the demand for wool and the price, looking at the futures market, you should try to pull anything out 25 micron and courser and put it in a separate line because the values not going to be there compared to the finer wool.”

The market for wool is heating up as millennial consumers revel in the fabric’s attributes: it wicks, it breathes, it washes, it’s natural – and it’s increasingly American. With Australian producers tending more toward lamb production, American wool producers, many in Montana, have been able to play their advantage, investing in genetics and realizing the rewards of putting up a good quality clip, Roeder said.

Historically, Montana producers specialize in one of three sheep production systems: fine wool, dual purpose and fast-growing lambs for feedlots and restaurants. Since the 1940s, sheep producers have made most of their income from lamb – and that has crept up. In 2000, probably 85 percent of the income a producer received was from lamb. The wool market just wasn’t there, Roeder said. Today, he said some fine wool producers are generating 65 or 70 percent of their income from lamb and almost 35 to 40 percent off wool.

Montana has a long history with the sheep industry. The first sheep came to Montana in 1869 into the Dillon area, where they will be having 150th anniversary celebration at this year’s Labor Day Rodeo. Sheep numbers in Montana peaked in the millions in the 1920s, before free range grazing waned. Sheep numbers nationally peaked in 1942 with World War II creating demand for wool to make uniforms and blankets and mutton that so many older Americans remember from that time. Numbers trended down for a lot of different reasons – markets, consumer preferences, labor, predators – but there’s been a resurgence in recent years.

“We're seeing a lot of younger people really interested in getting into the sheep business,” Roeder said. “The startup costs tend to be substantially lower than other agricultural enterprises. A lot of times you can get in on like a weed grazing project or, if you have a small base, you can lamb and shear them.”