Sheep industry about to relive the 1990s as small numbers culled to reduce farm pressures before summer

Aidan SmithCountryman
Countryman. Sheep Producer Ellen Walker with some blue tag wether lambs on her Brookton Properrty. Jackson Flindell
Camera IconCountryman. Sheep Producer Ellen Walker with some blue tag wether lambs on her Brookton Properrty. Jackson Flindell Credit: Jackson Flindell/The West Australian

WA sheep farmers say they staring at a crisis with many facing the daunting prospect of having to cull their flocks for the first time since the 1990s.

A combination of a lack of space in abattoirs, reduced live export shipments during summer and reduced demand has caused sheep prices to plummet during the past 12 months.

Prices for poorer sheep across the country have fallen to a point where it makes more economic sense to shoot sheep rather than sell them.

Sheep were worth between $100 and $150 this time last year are now selling for less than $5 per head, at a time when the price of lamb has dropped just 7 per cent at the supermarket or butcher.

Farmers and the WA agriculture industry more broadly also believe the Albanese Government’s plan to ban the nation’s $92 million live sheep export trade — 97 per cent of which operates in WA — has eroded confidence in the industry and is largely to blame for the price freefall.

Weather forecasters and climate experts are now warning Australia will experience a scorching summer with an El Nino and positive Indian Ocean Dipole declared.

With no rain on the horizon, farmers unable to fatten up their flocks are now having to make the difficult decision of whether to sell sheep below the cost of production or cull “unsellable” animals.

WA’s shadow agriculture minister Colin de Grussa, who once farmed at Esperance, was among thousands paid to shoot animals in the early 1990s as part of a national flock reduction scheme.

Farmers were paid $1.80 per head per sheep and $6 per lamb to cull an estimated 10 million head after mismanagement of the Australian Wool Reserve Price Scheme.

“It was the worst thing I ever had to do, as a farmer,” Mr de Grussa said.

“I wouldn’t be surprised if we don’t see something in the order of what happened back then . . .in coming weeks.

“I really feel for producers being put in this situation because of circumstances they have zero control over.”

Pastoralists and Graziers Association of WA livestock committee chair Chris Patmore, who farms at Eneabba, is among those preparing to shoot potentially hundreds of sheep in coming weeks.

“The damage has already been done this year . . . low-value sheep will be put down,” he said.

“There is no guarantee we will be able to sell (the sheep).”

Brookton farmer Ellen Walker has about 350 wethers that would normally have been sold in April, but were “stuck on the farm” with no avenue to sell.

Ellen Walker with some blue tag wether lambs on her Brookton property. Jackson Flindell
Camera IconEllen Walker with some blue tag wether lambs on her Brookton property. Jackson Flindell Credit: Jackson Flindell/The West Australian

She is also weighing up the future of 100 other sheep, which could be sold as pet food or culled if there was no alternative option to sell above the cost of production.

Ms Walker said the market was “more than fluctuating” after prices dropped from as high as $190 per head in 2022 to as low as $40 per head for the same type of sheep at current prices.

“The start was when COVID first hit and abattoirs were unable to function fully due to staff issues, which created a backlog,” Ms Walker said.

“That was carried over from the 2022 summer right through the spring of 2022.

“There were hardly any boats last summer and because of all that there was a big glut in the system of carry over lambs, wethers and ewes — with remnants still hanging over.”

In WA’s Great Southern, Lake Grace farmer Ray Bushby said he had been left with no answers after phoning both the Department of Primary Industries and Regional Development and the RSPCA WA.

He has 1500 sheep to sell in the next six months, but has been quoted between $1 and $10 per head at the Katanning Regional Saleyards for sheep that last year would have sold for $130 per head.

Mr Bushby has resorted to leasing out some of his farm to try to turn a profit after the fall in sheep prices and has already started culling sheep unlikely to sell at saleyards.

“I’ve had sleepless nights trying to figure out what to do,” Mr Bushby said.

“The whole industry is going to crash soon if it’s not sorted out.”

DPIRD primary industries development deputy director-general Cec McConnell said the State Government had not received any reports of “animal welfare concerns in relation to feed conditions” to date.

“To enhance the available information, DPIRD is undertaking economic analysis to assist sheep producers in their decision making on topics,” she said.

“This includes optimum flock size given price scenarios, priority animals to retain on farm and immediate decisions around feeding retained animals.”

A Federal Department of Agriculture spokeswoman said the Farm Household Allowance program was also available to farmers and their partners in financial hardship.

The fortnightly payment and other supplements pay household bills and was underpinned by one-to-one case management support.

Sheep producers can obtain financial counselling support by contacting Rural West, on 1800 612 004 or at enquiries@ruralwest.com.au.

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