Industry data points to turnaround in sheep

Melissa WilliamsCountryman
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Leading WA sheep consultants have forecast a turnaround in sheep numbers in most agricultural zones for 2012-13.

This is partly driven by potentially higher marking rates and twinning levels in sheep flocks this winter.

A Planfarm Consultants sheep flock survey of 300 clients indicated a 3.24 per cent increase in budgeted sheep numbers to May 2013, arresting an annual contraction in sheep numbers of 3.75 per cent since 2005 and turning around the previous year's decline of about 2 per cent.

Company agricultural consultant Nathaniel O'Hare said the sheep data was collected for the first time this year to provide an industry snapshot of farmers' plans for the coming year.

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He said a trend to rebuild sheep numbers was evident across all agricultural zones surveyed, except high rainfall south, but at the forecast rate would not put a big dent in low sheep numbers across the State.

"Our clients have been encouraged by strong wool and sheep meat prices and are also keen to build up flock numbers after many were forced to destock in 2010," he said.

Mr O'Hare said the modest increase in sheep numbers forecast for 2012-13 could go higher due to above average weaning rates.

He said there was capacity to wean more lambs across WA this winter and spring because of the good condition of ewes after a good spring in 2011 and high stubble values during summer.

Clients surveyed this year had budgeted for five-year average marking rates of 84 per cent, which was down on the actual average of 86 per cent achieved last year. But this was likely to be a conservative estimate.

"Anecdotally, those who have started lambing are telling us they are seeing more lambs in the paddock," Mr O'Hare said.

"But the full extent of weaning data won't be captured until August."

Darkan-based sheep consultant Bob Hall said many of his clients were expecting a high lambing and twinning rate this year based on ewe pregnancy scanning results.

"Most of our clients lamb in mid-July but commonly their ewe conception rates have been high this year due to the season and people looking after their sheep," he said.

"The messages of the Lifetime Ewe Management program are hitting home, in that keeping ewes in good condition will yield more lambs."

Mr Hall said lambing percentages in his region could be up as much as 10 per cent, driven by more twins and better survival, and across the State could rise by about 5 per cent.

He expected ewe numbers among his clients would recover this year to pre-2010 drought levels and total flock numbers would be back at levels of two years ago - if not higher.

The Planfarm survey showed ewe flock numbers now represented 57 per cent of the total WA sheep flock, just under the peak of 58.5 per cent in 2011.

WAMMCO International supply development manager Rob Davidson, who spoke at last week's Agribusiness Sheep Updates, said it was still early in the season to get an accurate picture of likely spring lamb numbers.

But he said there appeared to be good lamb survival around the sheep belt and the mutton kill last year had fallen substantially by about 45 per cent, potentially indicating producers had held ewes over for mating, which would further boost lamb numbers.

A National Australia Bank survey released last week forecast total Australian lamb numbers would rise 4.1 per cent in 2012-13 as the national flock rebuild continued and prices remained at historically high levels of 36 per cent above the long-term average. It said the value of Australian lamb production was about $2 billion in 2011-12 and the outlook was for a one per cent reduction in average prices during the 2012-13 financial year.

Exports of Australian lamb increased 10 per cent in the year to May and the NAB survey said, although the outlook was cautious, tight global supplies would stimulate further overseas sales growth.

Mr Davidson said export markets for WA boxed lamb were tough.

He said the State's biggest market was the Middle East. New Zealand was providing tough competition there with increased supplies stemming from overflow of poor sales into European markets, many of which were suffering from economic crises.

"China is a big market and, although under pressure, is taking a lot of second cuts and offal," he said.

"Recovery in US markets is continuing but consumers there are still eating more garlic every year than lamb, and in Australia there is a marked shift to smaller portion sizes and a consumer trend to spend on alternative protein sources.

"But we think demand will stabilise because Australian lamb has a good reputation for quality. That will underpin its future success."

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