Exporters bank on spring flush

Kate MatthewsCountryman

Live sheep exporters say low sheep numbers are a concern, but it's business as usual.

Last year, 2.9 million sheep were exported from Australia, the lowest number in 20 years.

The peak was in 2001 with 6.8 million sheep exported.

As export demand shrinks, the market is seeing a shift in supply.

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WA still supplies the lion's share at 75 per cent but a greater percentage are starting to be exported from the east.

To ensure consistent supplies, exporters are working with producers on a number of fronts offering forward contracts, constant communication and competitive prices.

High meat prices and the recovery of the wool price, an improved season and availability of feed are real incentives for producers to put sheep on the ground says Wellard Rural Exports managing director Steve Meerwald.

Wellard, through its rural production arm is doing exactly that on properties in Kojonup and Dongara, saying demand for sheepmeat and wool is a profitable part of the agri-supply business.

It is building up its ewe flock and sheep turned off are sold to the best market at the time - processors, other exporters or through Wellard's shipping arm.

"The driver isn't to produce our own sheep to fill our own boats," Mr Meerwald said. "Our production this year was about 25,000 lambs, a third of one boat so it's not going to go a long way."

Next year, when stocking rates are at maximum capacity, Wellard hope to work with producers on options such as leasing or joint ventures to run some of Wellard's breeding ewes.

Meanwhile, Livestock Shipping Services (LSS) is sticking to its core business of exporting.

LSS buyer Chris Metcalf said the high price and return per hectare was making sheep attractive.

But he said farmers needed to be aware they were getting the same price per head for sheep that were younger and lighter.

"In reality, exporters are paying very good money for sheep at the moment compared to the last several years because there are no more older sheep and we haven't got the weight in our cargo," he said.

"We are finding now that people are taking out one draft of wethers and hanging onto them."

In the short term, Mr Metcalf said numbers would not recover overnight and would take three to five years.

"Hopefully we can get two to three good seasons under our belt which will aid farmers holding their numbers together."

And for Emanuel Exports, managing director Graham Daws said it was business as usual.

"Our network knows exactly what's out there," Mr Daws said.

"They have designated areas and keep in touch with growers in their areas. All the growers in the areas know what we want month by month, and they should be well informed on what's happening.

"And while there is a shortage between east and west, the ships can be filled."

This week, Emanuel Exports started advertising forward contract prices for Awassi lambs delivered in the next two years.

It was offering $100 a head for deliveries in 2012 and $105 in 2013 for lambs averaging 38kg.

Emanuel Exports hopes the latest contracts will attract more producers to breed Awassi lambs, which attract a premium in the Middle East and are valued for their meat, milk and wool.

Last year, more than 150,000 Awassi lambs were contracted.

To entice producers, the rams are supplied free and can be joined with ewes of all breeds.

For many producers, having a predictable income gives confidence, especially during the spring flush when lamb prices usually drop.

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