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Challenge to lift lambing rates

Bob Garnant and Melissa WilliamsCountryman

At current rates of stock replacement, new preliminary figures suggest it will take another 20 years to rebuild WA's sheep flock to a sustainable level.

The current flock size estimate of 12.5 million head, which includes 9.2 million ewes, is considered by some in the industry to be too low for economic sustainability.

Wool and sheepmeat processors and the live sheep export trade support any rebuilding of sheep numbers in the short term to avoid loss of processing and shipping capacity out of the State.

One immediate challenge being laid down to sheep producers when restocking is to focus on lifting the State's average lambing rate from 70 to 100 per cent.

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This call was made last week by the Sheep Industry Leadership Council (SILC), which has been charged with arresting and reversing the decline in WA's sheep numbers.

Group chairman Rob Warburton said the first step to rebuilding the State's flock to sustainable levels was to lift lambing averages.

"If we remain at 70 per cent lambing, we estimate the State would require 17 million ewes," he said.

At the current lambing rate, he said that figure would not be realised until 2030.

Mr Warburton said the 17 million head 'optimum' number was far from being set in concrete.

He said further investigation was needed to determine a realistic target for a sustainable WA flock and this would be influenced by many variables.

What was agreed by the SILC was that the flock could be rebuilt.

"The foremost message to get across to producers is their immediate uptake of productivity gains," Mr Warburton said.

He said growers needed to define their management strategies, whether it was growing meat or wool, and be prepared to make a commitment on the basis of improved global demand.

"Current low supplies and concurring high prices are a threat (to the industry)," he said.

"To develop our existing and any new markets, we need to get the price into perspective and work on continuous supply if we are to be sustainable."

Mr Warburton said there were also opportunities to study how other industries, like croppers and some sectors of the livestock industry, rapidly adopted new technology.

"Growers who are in the 70 per cent lambing category should consult with the industry (experts) and lift their lamb numbers, especially on the back of an improved season," he said.

"During the past 20 years, more tools have been made available to sheep producers but take-up has been slow."

Elders WA technical wool manager Danny Burkett said the State's estimated 2011-12 wool production was expected to drop another 9.2 per cent from levels of 70.1m/kg greasy produced in 2010-11.

"While most growers are planning to increase wool production by holding onto older ewes and running more wethers, those past producers who got out are not intending to come back into the system. Any increase in the State's wool production should be seen in 2012-13," he said.

"Growers need to be mindful of how wool processors have invested in machinery at great expense and the importance of the pipeline being able to flow smoothly for the benefit of the entire industry."

Chief executive of major WA lamb processor WAMMCO International, Scott Weir, said a 100 per cent lambing rate and flock of about 17 million head seemed to be good targets for the local sheep sector.

"I would say 17 million head would be in the ballpark of a good-sized State flock heading towards a level we need for a vibrant sheep processing industry here," he said.

"And at current prices of about $4.50/kg for lamb, there are very good returns for producers who increase lambing percentages.

"It is a good direction for the industry to be heading in to take advantage of good domestic and export market opportunities."

Wellard Rural Exports managing director Steve Meerwald said the current flock size across southern Australia could sustain live export demand.

However, he said in the past 12 months there had been a greater emphasis on sheep supplies from the eastern states as WA's drought continued to bite on local availability.

"This season we should see significant stabilising of WA sheep numbers and, depending on the lamb drop, numbers could start turning around quite quickly," he said.

"The commercial incentives are in place for WA's existing sheep producers to expand their flocks and maximise carrying capacity and for other farmers to get into sheep."

Mr Meerwald said Wellard Agri had set an internal company target for 100 per cent lambing across its eight properties and this was a realistic target for most sheep producers, given the industry expertise available and potential financial rewards on offer. He said he welcomed that initiative of the SILC.

WA Livestock Exporters Association chairman John Edwards said the erosion of the WA flock due to drought last year meant sheep numbers were on the brink of no return if breeding stock levels were not re-built.

He said WA's live sheep exporting capacity could be seriously affected if flock numbers remained at current levels, and already some shipping capacity had been lost to the eastern States and to cattle.

"Two years ago we exported three million sheep out of WA and now we are struggling to assemble two million head," he said.

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