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National voice urged for cherries

Melissa WilliamsCountryman
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WA's sheep industry is in a precarious position on the back of low sheep numbers, turnoff levels exceeding reproduction and underperforming Merino ewes in many flocks.

That was a key message to emerge from the 2012 Agribusiness Sheep Updates held by the Department of Agriculture and Food (DAFWA) in Perth last week, which attracted about 130 delegates.

At 14.5 million head, the State's sheep population has almost halved during the past six years to the same level it was in 1957 and remains well down from a record peak of almost 40 million head in the early 1990s.

Nationally, the sheep flock has fallen from about 140 million head in 1993 to 80 million head last year, of which about 40 million are breeding ewes.

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While Australian wool production has almost halved in that time, this fibre loss has been offset by a steady increase in lamb and meat production.

Reflecting the national trend, Murdoch University lecturer Graham Gardner said there had been a marked shift in the WA sheep industry's reliance on wool returns from about 80 per cent 20 years ago to about 50 per cent wool and 50 per cent meat currently.

DAFWA data shows wool was worth $558 million to the local economy in 2010-11 and meat returned $528 million.

Dr Gardner said the State needed to recover sheep numbers urgently to be sustainable in the long term and, with a focus on both meat and wool, this required rebuilding the Merino flock.

He said DAFWA estimated Merinos accounted for about 83 per cent of the 2012 sheep breeding ewe flock in WA at 8.1 million head, of which 62 per cent was expected to be used for Merino lamb production and 21 per cent for cross breeding.

The remaining ewe flock comprised Samm (4 per cent), Dohne, Dorper and first cross (each 3 per cent), Damara (2 per cent) and other breeds (3 per cent).

Dr Gardner said a reliance on Merino ewes presented a big obstacle to the development of a long-term sustainable sheep industry in this State because of low average marking rates (lambs marked to ewes joined).

"Nationally, Merino marking rates are averaging about 80 per cent and in WA the average is about 77 per cent," he said.

"Maternal ewes from other breeds are achieving much higher levels."

The WA Sheep Industry Leadership Council (SILC) said WA processors and live exporters needed a minimum 5.6 million head of sheep per year to fill markets and at these average marking rates, this level of turnoff is unsustainable as it is exceeding reproduction rates by more than two million sheep annually.

It said even at this level of turnoff, WA sheep processors were running inefficiently with shorter shifts, short weeks and longer shutdowns and live exporters might have to source more sheep from the eastern states.

The SILC said WA sheep marking rates need to lift to 90 per cent to address sheep population and industry decline and at last week's Sheep Updates it announced a More Sheep 100%+ club initiative to encourage producers to achieve at least 100 per cent lambing rates.

Victorian-based agricultural consultant Jason Trompf, of JT Agri-Source, told the Sheep Updates the average national marking rate of 77 per cent in Merino sheep had been static for the past 20 years and it was time for the industry to change its game plan.

"In New Zealand in that time there has been a 30 per cent improvement in average national lamb marking rates," he said.

"At 77 per cent, sheep flocks are hardly self-replacing, let alone providing the ability for the country to sell off its long-term average of 38 million head of sheep each year.

"If we can lift marking rates by 5 to 10 per cent, we can sustain our turnoff and build-up flock numbers."

SILC has found a 12 per cent increase in marking rates from 78 to 90 per cent would boost total WA farm profit by $64 million and be worth about $50 per extra lamb on-farm at average stocking rates and current meat prices.

The council said increasing lamb survival was worth three times as much as lifting conception rates, which in WA were generally about 120 per cent but were not being converted to lambs marked at about 77 per cent.

Mr Trompf said reproductive rates were an important profit-driver and the focus should be on using best management practices to allow twin lambs to thrive and survive.

He said this would also have positive spin-offs in reducing lamb losses for better welfare outcomes, applying greater selection pressure to fast-track genetic gains and providing greater business flexibility.

Mr Trompf said Merinos were fertile sheep, but were getting a bad wrap from management practices that resulted in average survival rates for twins of 50 per cent and singles of 80 per cent.

"There are about 40 million ewes in Australia conceiving about 50 million foetuses - at an average conception rate of 125 per cent - but we are only marking about 30 million lambs, which is about two thirds of the lambs that were alive mid-pregnancy," he said.

"This shows survival is a bigger issue than conception and we need to convert the potential number of foetuses to reality. This can be done with a focus on ewe nutrition in late pregnancy and boosting survival rates to 70 per cent in twins and 90 per cent in singles to get an overall 100 per cent marking percentage."

Mr Trompf said a leading cause of lamb deaths (60 per cent) was starvation and mis-mothering, which reflected low birth weights and inadequate ewe nutrition and reinforced the need to proactively manage ewe nutrition to meet the recommended condition score three at critical stages of the reproductive cycle.

"Research has shown if the ewe is in better condition score at lambing, the birth weight of the lamb is higher, ewe milk is better quality, there is more milk available and there is a better chance the ewe will stay at the birth site for longer," he said.

"For every five metres the ewe moves away from the birth site in the first five hours of a lamb's life, the chance of the lamb's survival drops 5 per cent."

Mr Trompf said there were also breeding strategies that could help producers lift flock marking percentages, with traits for genetic fat and muscle correlating to better lamb survival and more robust and resilient sheep.

For every five metres the ewe moves away from the birth site in the first five hours of a lamb's life, the chance of the lamb's survival drops 5 per cent. Jason Trompf, JT Agri-Source

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