view all news

BKB Wool Store Journey

06 September 2023

61 Grahamstown Road, Gqeberha

BKB markets the largest portion of the South African wool clip from the 11 000 square meter display floor at 61 Grahamstown Road in Gqeberha. South Africa produces a variety of wool from different classes, grouped into three main divisions; Merino-type Wool, Mutton Merino Wool Breeds, and Cross-Breed Wool (this includes white and coloured wool). Merino and Dohne Merino Wool is considered far superior and often referred to as the ‘Golden Fleece’.

The BKB Warehouse handles the produce of 4 500 commercial farmers and approximately 90 000 emerging and small farmers which gets sold at the Wool Exchange at an auction. In an interview with the Wool Communications author, Elisabeth van Delden, Isak Staats, General Manager of Wool and Mohair at BKB, states it so eloquently: “Our smallest customer sends us one bag of wool, and our biggest customer sends us 500 bales of wool.”

bales of wool

During peak season, 340 people are responsible for receiving bales, weighing, sorting and blending, sampling, storing and displaying wool before the fibre goes to auction. Shearing takes place at regular intervals throughout the year. Typically, wool producers will class and sort their wool after shearing. Producers would clearly indicate their producer number, initials, the number of bales in the lot and the grade symbol of classing on each individual bale. The classing standards in South Africa are recommended by the NWGA (National Wool Growers Association of South Africa) and recognised worldwide. A clip refers to the wool sheared from a herd of sheep during one growing period. Lot(s) within a clip refers to one or more bales with the same grading.

Man sorting wool

The total storage area in the BKB wool warehouse occupies 11 hectares. The enormous warehouse is divided into two floors. The ground floor is divided into Receival, Warehousing and Shipping departments. The top floor is divided into the Objective Measurement, Bin and Blending 1 and 2, and, the Display Floor.

The bottom level of the 5-hectare wool warehouse handles receival, preparation of wool clip for cataloguing, high-density pressing, storing for the four-week heating period and shipping. While the top-level handles Objective Measurements (OM), sorting and blending (BC), and showcasing the display samples prior to the three weeks of auctioning.

Bales arrive throughout the year, and the warehouse handles approximately 230 000 bales annually. Clips are delivered by truckload to the ground floor of the wool warehouse and is accompanied by a clip advice form which contains information on how the clip must be presented. Upon receival, an internal reference number is created on the system for each lot in the clip and bales are tagged with a blank RFID (Radio Frequency Identification) tag that would be assigned with the information of the lot. The RFID tag is a computerised chip which can be read at a distance using radio frequencies. After being screened for metal objects and cut at three places for the removal of grab samples, the bale moves to the Objective Measurement (OM) floor.

The automated system can keep track of a single bale of wool in the vast BKB warehouse. The RFID tag attached to each received bale forms the framework of warehouse automation.

It enables the industry to track the progress of every bale as it travels through the warehouse. This automation is a remarkable step towards higher efficiency, employee safety and responsible operational practices.

bales of wool in wool store

After being received, scanned for foreign material and tagged, the bale travels up the mechanical track to the second level. Here the bales are directed first towards the OM floor, where an array of samples are taken from each bale to be tested. The samples consist of a grab sample, a core sample and the weighing of the bale. The accurate application of classing is checked when the grab sample is taken by a wool technician. The Wool Testing Bureau (WTB) personnel are responsible for and oversee the sampling process on the floor. Australia, New Zealand and South Africa use the same testing processes and equipment. Apart from the two samples taken, a third sample is taken from the grab sample for a length and strength test provided that the wool is longer than 45mm. 

A grab sample of between 3.5-7 kg and a core sample is collected from a lot. If an incorrect classing standard of a bale in the lot is identified, the bale will be rejected from the lot and allocated to the BC department. At the BC department, skilled hands grade the bale content correctly and sort it into bins. The bins represent the range within wool classing, and a total of 500 variations are catered for. A single bin can accommodate approximately ten bales of wool, translating to the shearing from roughly 400 sheep. The wool technician will carefully allocate the wool into one of the 500 possibilities.

The wool tests are performed at the WTB lab in Summerstrand, Gqeberha. The wool will undergo various tests to determine the fibre diameter in micron, clean yield and seed percentage. The results of the tests are available to prospective buyers seven days after sampling.

After the sampling takes place on the OM floor, the grab sample will move to the display floor.  In each display box, the buyers can see a printout of the sample lot number, the producer’s description, and whether the wool is RWS (Responsible Wool Standard) certified or not. Here, buyers’ concentrate intently while they move slowly through the boxes, making notes while assessing the potential of each lot and allocating specific lots to contracts signed prior to a sale. Natural light is essential for the evaluation process to ensure the true characteristics of the fibres can be assessed.

RWS has three objectives: providing a standard to measure best farming practices; ensuring that the wool comes from producers with a progressive approach to land management and respect for animal welfare; and lastly, providing a documented chain of custody for the wool as it moves along the supply chain, referred to as the Content Claim Standard (CCS). RWS certification is well supported and offers traceability.

Traceability in relation to sustainable production is the golden thread of the wool industry. Many international buyers buy RWS-certified wool in order to satisfy the worldwide drive for responsible, transparent and traceable production processes. According to Jano van Schalkwyk, Senior Wool Technician, most producers see the practices prescribed in this standard as second nature and similar to their inherent way of farming. “Sheep farmers are earth-and-animal focused; this makes the standard requirements attainable,” he says.

In addition to the thousands of kilograms of baled wool delivered here throughout the year, a small proportion of wool arrives in a multi-coloured assortment of bags. These bags come from all over the country, mainly from subsistence farmers in the formerly known Kei-region in the Eastern Cape area. These bags are handled with the same respect and care as the large deliveries, allocated to a dedicated bag department to be sorted on the second floor which eliminates the possibility of contamination. The robust BKB Wool Warehouse system developed over years, can successfully process 42 million kilograms of wool per year, yet still care for one bag of wool. This is where an informal farmer gains formal and equal access to the international wool market. The small bags are classed and combined to form a big wool bale that can be sold on the sale. Producers’ contributions to a bale are carefully noted and their payment amount is in accordance with their contribution of the bale which is determined at the auction. BKB provides training throughout the year in the rural areas, the formerly known Kei-region in the Eastern Cape, to positively influence the eventual auction outcome for these producers.

BKB wool store

After the bales have moved through the OM floor, they are dropped down a gravity feeding line directly to the high-density press located on the ground floor. The press will compress the bales by strapping them with steel straps into compact bales. This process is done to optimise space in the warehouse and the mass constrictions in twenty- or forty-foot containers. After the bales are compacted, they are moved to pre-shipping storage. The Pre-Shipping department of the BKB Warehouse, set on the ground floor, can house approximately 90 000 bales. The RFID system forms an integral part of the pre-shipping system, and the stowage position for each lot is captured on the system. The stowage relates to a block on the Pre-shipping floor where the bales are stored pre-sale per catalogue. The bales will move to shipping after the sale when a shipping order is received from the buyers. The buyers house orders the container booked on a shipping vessel that needs to be packed to meet a cut-off time.

The wool is sold during a weekly auction pre-scheduled per season. The season starts in August until June the following year. The weekly auctions take place at scheduled times in the Wool Exchange building sales rooms. On a sale date South African Wool Brokers will offer their catalogue in a pre-determined slots by the auction regulated body, the South African Wool and Mohair Buyers Association (SAWAMBA). During the sale six buyers registered at SAWAMBA can bid on any lot presented.

men inspecting wool

Before being shipped, BKB ensures that biosecurity is upheld through a temperature-controlled heating warehouse. The bales are stored from the day of delivery for a minimum of 28 days at 18 degrees Celsius in the heated control warehouse. International recommendations are followed for the amount of time the wool should be in the controlled heated warehouse before being shipped. Cape Wools, a non-profit organisation, as a third party is responsible for monitoring the data collected associated with the heat sensor loggers. This helps to ensures that the high standards of the South African Wool sector, are upheld. A weekly journal produced by Cape Wools informs the warehouse of progress, reporting the readings from the heat sensor loggers, and the time a bale has spent under certain temperatures. Cape Wools have a State Veterinarian overlooking the packing of containers destined for China. Having such an impartial overseer generates great confidence in the BKB system and South African Wool & Mohair industry.