Riding the back of the sheep again?
Is the flock improving?
In 1990, Bob Hawke was prime minister, the 80 Series Toyota LandCruiser went on sale and the Victorian Football League was renamed the Australian Football League.
It was also exciting times for Australian sheep producers, with the national flock soaring to 173 million head, after a decade of optimism and profits for woolgrowers.
Though farmers were riding the sheep’s back, 1990 marked the start of a turbulent period for the industry.
The wool market collapsed in February, 1991, after the Federal Government announced it was suspending the wool reserve price scheme.
It led to a dramatic drop in the greasy commodity’s value and proved a catalyst in many farmers opting out of the woolshed and sending more lambs to slaughter.
Gradually, Australia’s flock declined before prolonged poor seasonal conditions brought sheep numbers to 68.1 million in 2010 — almost 105 million head less than 20 years prior.
Meat and Livestock Australia’s latest projections showed the nation’s flock fell to 65.8 million head in June this year, dropping 6.8 per cent year-on-year and 8.7 per cent since 2017.
However, in WA strong sheepmeat and wool prices are reviving sheep production.
According to Department of Primary Industries and Regional Development senior development officer Mandy Curnow, there has been positive industry growth since 2013.
“Over the past six years there has been renewed interest in sheep production in WA, driven by significant price improvements,” she said.
“The WA sheep industry has grown in productivity at a steady rate over the past decade.
While the average wool cut per head has been maintained, the average fibre diameter has declined and the value of wool production on a per head basis has increased.
The Western Market Indicator for wool increased from 1118¢/kg in March, 2013, to 2133¢/kg in March this year.
The heavy lamb saleyard indicator has also risen across the six-year period, more than doubling from 305¢/kg in March, 2013, to 641¢/kg.
WA lamb marking rates have hiked from about 83 per cent in 2010-11 to about 90 per cent in 2017-18 alongside an increase in lamb carcase weights.
The returning market confidence comes as the State’s projected flock numbers rise.
Though a far cry from when WA boasted 38 million sheep in 1990, DPIRD have projected the State’s flock size to be about 15.1 million head as of July this year.
More than 12 months ago, the flock was at 14.5 million according to DPIRD — up 2 per cent from 2017.
Ms Curnow said of last year’s 14.5 million head there were 8.1 million breeding ewes — 85 per cent of which were Merino — in turn aiding this year’s flock growth.
“There was a slight increase in the proportion of breeding ewes in the flock pointing to possible flock building,” she said.
“As of July 2019, the WA flock is projected to have numbered around 15.1 million, due to lower than normal turn-off and a higher number of ewes in the flock allowing for more lambs born.”
Will saleyard sales stay strong?
Katanning Regional Saleyards manager Rod Bushell admits DPIRD’s latest flock update for WA comes as a surprise, but welcomed the news.
Mr Bushell, who farms at Katanning with son Andrew, has overseen the Great Southern livestock centre since it opened in 2014 with a front row seat watching the sheepmeat market’s ebbs-and-flows.
Katanning’s former saleyards yarded about 1.3 million head annually at its peak.
However, the region’s new complex experienced a steady fall in sales and yardings after its doors opened, recording annual sheep yardings as low as 700,000 in 2015-16 as WA’s sheep flock declined.
Last year marked a resurgence in Katanning sheep sales, with 829,880 head passing through the yard in 2017-18 to notch a 136,529 head spike compared with the previous financial year.
While noting spike was underpinned by buoyant prices, Mr Bushell also said low rainfalls had forced parched farmers to send sheep to the saleyards.
“The first couple of years we were open it was pretty quiet,” he said.
“The last couple of years, yardings have been quite strong and I think most of it is price related.
There is a lot of sheep being sold that farmers don’t want to sell, but they have to sell them because of the water and feed situation.
At the Katanning auction on August 7, a whopping 20,840 sheep and lambs were yarded to record a 4097 increase on the week prior.
A stand-out pen of heavy lambs reached $260 per head returning 809¢/kg cwt — $29 a head shy of the WA lamb record set at Katanning on June 5 when a line of SAMM ram lambs sold for $289 per head.
Mr Bushell said strong sheepmeat demand and record prices gave farmers renewed confidence and incentive to invest in sheep production.
“The price has been strong for the last year or two and really gone mad in the last couple of months,” he said.
“I expect yardings to remain strong if the prices are good — the market is strong.”
Pastoralists biting back
Across the State’s vast rangelands, pastoralists once rode the sheep’s back with glee while wool shone brightly as the jewel in the pastoral industry’s crown.
However, WA’s burgeoning wild dog problem has forced many station owners — particularly throughout the Goldfields-Nullarbor — to forgo sheep in favour of cattle to avoid savage pest attacks on helpless flocks.
Staunch pastoral identity Ross Wood has been on the frontline of the wild dog war for more than 15 years, lobbying for doggers and pest-proof fences to safeguard the vulnerable sheep industry.
The Kalgoorlie Pastoral Alliance boss said it had been brutal blow for pastoralist who have been pushed out of the wool sheds by the ferocious canines.
“Wild dogs have played a big part in the flock decline,” Mr Wood said.
“Many people can’t go back into sheep any more because they don’t have a dog-free environment — without a dog-free environment, you can’t run sheep.
“Fences are critical right across Australia, because if you don’t have fences to control wild dogs you’re not going to win.
Baiting programs aren’t going to solve the problem alone, it only lowers the background noise and allows other dogs to just come in and replace the ones that were killed.
Department of Primary Industries and Regional Development figures show the broader Goldfields region hosted about 300,000 sheep in the late 1980s.
Presently, two stations both situated more than 330km east of Kalgoorlie-Boulder — Rawlinna Station and Madura Plains — are believed to be the only surviving pillars of the Goldfields-Nullarbor’s once-thriving sheep sector.
Some stations in the Gascoyne and Murchison still boast sheep, but are not immune to the pests.
Pastoralists have been offered a sense of hope with multiple anti-wild dog fencing projects under way, aiming to provide a barrier to fend off the canines.
Near Kalgoorlie-Boulder, the development of a $8.4 million cluster-cell poised to encompass 2.4 million hectares of pastoral land and 11 Goldfields stations has begun.
Mr Wood hoped it would revitalise the region’s sheep industry, once complete, and encourage pastoralists.
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