For nearly 40 years South Otago farmer David Shaw has championed the potential of cashmere goats for fibre returns, weed control and breaking in rough country.
The missing piece of the puzzle has long been a local scourer/processor to transform the raw product into the super-soft fibre chased by the high-end fashion houses of Europe, North America and Asia. Lower Hutt-based Woolyarns has now plugged that gap and the call is going out to farmers to respond.
“There’s a whole lot of headwinds out there at the moment for farmers with environmental challenges, market issues and so on. Some feel overwhelmed by it,” David says.
“Ultimately, farmers need to do what they do better. Goats can fill a really important niche, not only by diversifying income but with the synergistic gains that go on between goats, other livestock and pasture.”
NZ Cashmere executive director Andy May, who is also Woolyarns general manager, says premium grade cashmere realises between $110 and $150 a kilo. Completing the “win, win” for farmers is the fact goats prefer eating thistle heads, gorse and other weeds to clover.
“There’s a lot of research going back to the ‘80s and ‘90s – and we’re doing new research now to contemporise it – showing that when you put goats over pasture they take that roughage and weeds out of it, and it actually increases clover content by up to 30%.
“There’s better quality feed for capital stock, enabling farmers to finish stock faster or better, making a real difference to the farm’s bottom line.”
Environmentally-aware consumers like the fact goats do the weed control work, not chemicals.
“We’re saying they can be complementary and additional to farm systems. Keep the same number of cattle or sheep, match them with 10% of cashmere goats, and they’ll deliver those pasture benefits and the additional revenue,” Andy says.
There will be plenty of farmers around who remember the goat boom of the 1980s, and the bust that followed the 1987 stock market crash and finance meltdown.
David Shaw admits it was “the wild, wild west” for a time. Wool was in the doldrums and people had witnessed what happened with the deer industry and live capture.
“The idea was the emulate the same thing with goats.
“But we learned how to farm goats and the research organisations came on board.”
Dawsons International, the Scottish conglomerate that had been buying a lot of wool out of New Zealand and Australia, as well as cashmere from China, invested heavily to grow the industry here.
But then the impacts of the stockmarket crash rippled out, Dawsons became unsustainable, the whole supply chain fell apart and pretty much everybody forgot about goats and cashmere.
At the Clinton property where he also finishes beef cattle and raises lamb for export, Dave – a Federated Farmers member and a director of Silver Fern Farms for seven years until 2013 – doggedly persevered with his goat flock, steadily improving genetics.
“Every now and then I’d get a phone call from somebody saying ‘look, I’ve got these damn goats’. Many of them had been imported from Australia and had been developed with extensive embroyo transplant and breeding programmes…we didn’t want them just going to the freezing works.
“So, we’ve ended up with a unique genetic base, with four decades of breeding now.”
David founded NZ Cashmere and it was five years ago that he first opened dialogue with Woolyarns. Woolyarns now has 100% ownership of NZ Cashmere and David and his family specialise in genetics under their Hēpara Cashmere brand.
Woolyarns traces its beginnings back to 1944. As director and former NZ Trade & Enterprise board stalwart Charles Finny told the cashmere venture’s launch event this month, the Lower Hutt company “in theory shouldn’t even exist”.
It survived the removal of tariffs and licensing, multiple global recessions and “real challenges” during COVID.
“The reason we’re still here is that we innovate. We move quickly and can pivot.”
Finny said they’ve supplied Perino, the company’s merino wool and possum fur fibre, and other yarns to the likes of Hermes, Chanel and Armani. The yarns and fibre buyers of Europe and North America appreciate the ‘New Zealand story’, the environmental credentials of our farmers.
Now Woolyarns want to do the same with NZ cashmere. The company has invested $2.5 million in sophisticated plant that separates the guard hair from the desirable cashmere fibre that grows closer to the animal’s skin, removes all the dirt and burrs the goats pick up browsing hard country, and de-greases the target fibre. No-one else is doing this in New Zealand, and visitors on a plant tour this month were forbidden from taking photographs of some of the processing machinery because the IP is unique.
Andy May says about 40 farmers raising cashmere goats are currently supplying Woolyarns.
“We want 500.
“There’s a huge market for cashmere fibre. We get regular calls from the luxury brands we’ve built connections with. They’ll take whatever we produce.
“We’ve got the capacity here; we’re not running 24/7 yet. We’re setting up the plant for when cashmere really does come on…We’ll grow it in a controlled way because we want the best quality fibre,” Andy says.
The genetics coming out of our New Zealand animals are world class. “We’ve compared their fibre against what’s deemed to be the best from China and we’re comparable, if not better.
“It just has a different lustre, a different feel to it. It might be the scale structure, maybe it’s what they eat here…”
Kelsey Shaw, daughter of David, is also upbeat about future prospects. She’s been around goats ever since she was tall enough to hold a milking bottle and now she and partner Mitch farm in Canterbury and drive the animal recording program.
She points out the cost of entry for farmers is not a big hurdle. Quality bucks put across feral goats pulled out of the likes of the King Country, the east coast and central Otago will produce 95% white cashmere goats.
Sitting among a couple of dozen other farmers in Lower Hutt for the Woolyarns plant tour and a NZ Cashmere conference, she says those present have herds ranging from 20 to 1000-plus.