MSU Partnership Makes Quick Work of Wool Testing


by Marshall Swearingen, MSU News Service

On March 16, as about 200 sheep from Montana State University’s research flock were relieved of their annual wool fleece, a new, one-of-a-kind machine designed by MSU’s Montana Manufacturing Extension Center was put through its paces.

Unlike other, older machines used to assess the quality of wool, the one designed by MMEC is faster and portable, said Whit Stewart, a sheep specialist with MSU Extension and an assistant professor of sheep and wool production in the Department of Animal and Range Sciences in MSU’s College of Agriculture.

By allowing his team to quickly and efficiently take wool samples on-site, the machine is increasing the team’s capacity for identifying sheep that yield quality wool, which could help Montana sheep producers breed for higher profits, Stewart said.

In the past, Stewart’s research team would haul entire fleeces, rather than small samples, to the MSU Wool Lab at the Bozeman campus in order to use a slower, stationary machine built in the 1940s.

“It used to take half an hour to sample a fleece, compared to just a couple minutes now,” he said.

As rain pattered on the roof of the sheep barn at MSU’s Red Bluff Research Ranch near Norris, shearers stooped to buzz the thick, white coats from each of the yearling ewes, then tossed the fleeces to MSU Wool Lab manager Andrew Williams.

Williams placed each one into the machine’s filing drawer-sized box made of heavy-gauge metal. At the press of a lever, powerful hydraulics rammed a grid of 16 hollow spikes into the box, sending “core” samples of wool onto a tray below.

Taking multiple cores from each fleece ensures accurate sampling, said Wes Helle, a sophomore majoring in range science and a research assistant with MSU Extension’s sheep program. He helped Williams collect the samples into ziplock bags labelled with corresponding sheep identification numbers.

Back at the MSU Wool Lab, the samples would be weighed, washed of their lanolin, then re-weighed to determine the wool’s “clean weight.” The greater the clean weight, the greater a sheep’s “yield.” The size and shape of the wool fibers would also be measured.

“You want to have high-yielding, uniform fleece to get the best profit from your wool crop,” Williams said.

The data from the MSU research flock are registered with the National Sheep Improvement Program, which maintains a database of sheep genetics that producers reference for breeding sheep for wool quality and other characteristics, Stewart said.

Many of the sheep breeds being raised in Montana were developed half a century ago, and since then, research about wool yield has stagnated, in large part because of the logistical challenges of sampling wool from large numbers of sheep, according to Stewart. That’s why he approached MMEC about a year ago and asked for help.

“I knew they were a resource that I could turn to,” Stewart said of MMEC, which is housed in MSU’s College of Engineering and supports manufacturing in the state through various forms of outreach and assistance.

MMEC director Paddy Fleming said he and his colleagues enjoyed the engineering challenge of designing the machine. Former MMEC engineer Rob Cook, who graduated from MSU’s College of Engineering in 1988, was the primary designer. MMEC selected Gerbers of Montana, Inc., an agricultural service provider and manufacturer in Great Falls, to fabricate the machine.

According to Fleming, other land-grant universities have expressed interest in the machine, which could translate to business for Gerbers.

Prior to the MSU shearing, the machine was used in February to sample wool from about 200 sheep at the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Sheep Experiment Station near Dubois, Idaho, as well as about 100 sheep from more than a dozen Montana wool growers who participated in an MSU Extension program that provides a standardized assessment of the breeding value of ram sheep.

The MSU Wool Lab is one of only two wool research facilities at land-grant universities in the U.S. According to Stewart, MSU Extension hopes to leverage the wool-testing machine’s capacity into providing increased assistance to Montana wool growers.

“We took our knowledge of animal husbandry and wool, and combined it with MMEC’s engineering expertise, to make a unit that allows us to do research that needs to be done,” he said.

Contact: Whit Stewart,, (406) 994-3758; Paddy Fleming,, (406) 994-3812.

Andrew Williams, Wool Lab manager at Montana State University tests wool fleece from Targhee-Rambouillet cross-breed sheep with a wool coring machine on Thursday, March 16, 2017, at the MSU Red Bluff Research Ranch, near Norris, Mont. The wool coring machine was designed by the Montana Manufacturing Extension Center for the MSU College of Agriculture's Wool Lab. MSU Photo by Adrian Sanchez-Gonzalez

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