Industry on fertile ground

Kate PollardCountryman

In the past decade, sheep enterprises have shifted from a wool to a meat focus but that may be coming back into balance, according to Meat and Livestock Australia chief economist Tim McRae.

"We do surveys three times a year talking about producers' intentions - whether they are going to increase their meat or wool focus - and it seems to be in the last 12 months, what we would call the demographic shift from a Merino flock to a meat-based flock has pretty much established," he said.

However, Mr McRae re-iterated that WA had the biggest Merino ewe base composition by any State.

Figures from the October survey show more than half of WA's breeding ewes are used for Merino lambs, followed by Merino for crossing, other breeds, first cross, Dohne, Dorper and Samms.

By February this year, grower intentions had changed, still with major focus on Merino, but an increased focus on Dorper, Dohne and Samm.

During the Southern WA Meat Profit Day in Albany in August, it was estimated that WA's sheep flock was 13.7 million head, the lowest level since 1957 and far from the peak of 38 million in 1990.

WA exports 1.8 million sheep - 71 per cent of the national live export sheep trade.

However, to sustain livestock and processor demands, the State requires a minimum turnoff of 5.6 million head. The estimated turnoff for 2011-2012 was short of that figure at 4.1 million head.

Mr McRae said given how bad the seasons had been in WA, he was surprised flock numbers had not fallen further.

But he said the resilience of WA producers and their ability to maintain productivity through poor years had helped the industry to survive.

He said it would take a good season or two to seriously turn numbers around, as had been seen in the past two years in the eastern states.

Mr McRae said WA's prime lamb industry was positioned well, because of its focus on Middle East trade.

"We expect to see continued growth there. It's a carcase trade - they like a smaller carcase, which is more likely to come from a Merino-base ewe," he said.

"The two fastest-growing markets in the last 10 years are the Middle East and China. They are markets where WA targets its products more than others."

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