State’s sheep flock on the rise

Kate MatthewsCountryman

WA's declining sheep flock looks to have turned a corner, according to Department of Agriculture and Food senior research officer Kimbal Curtis.

Mid last year, the official figure for WA's sheep population was 14.5 million.

But by June this year, Mr Curtis said sheep numbers could be 15 million, or even higher.

"Live export and processing numbers are significantly down this year on last year and as a result we expect the population to have started to increase slowly," he said.

As processors and exporters brace because of tight numbers, they are eagerly waiting to hear about this season's lambing.

At this stage, Mr Curtis said it was too early to get a conclusive handle on marking rates, with the best data to gauge numbers being Meat and Livestock Australia's national lamb survey, released in June.

Anecdotally, Darkan consultant Bob Hall says he's received excellent feedback with early lamb numbers high and pregnancy scanning for the bulk of lambing during June to August, also high.

"The prospects are for an above average lambing across the sheep belt," Mr Hall said.

But it will be two years until ewe lambs from this season play their part.

"If we can keep them alive, in two years time we will have a boost to ewe numbers," Mr Hall said.

Russell's Ultra Sound Sheep Scanning Service scanner Charles Russell has had mixed results this season.

He recorded conception rates down 5-10 per cent on last year's average of 80-85 per cent.

"But saying that, last week I was at six places between Manjimup and Narembeen where there was 95 per cent conception rate," Mr Russell said.

He said the reduction was due to variables, including the condition of ewes at joining, summer feed regimes and rain in December which produced a huge amount of summer weeds.

"A lot of guys used their ewes to trash and graze out these weeds which are toxic and have huge impacts on the sheep's reproductive system," Mr Russell said.

In Borden, the Barrows family and their neighbours have had lambs on the ground since the third week of February.

First to lamb were the crossbreds, followed by Merinos a month later.

Brendan Barrows said despite the gamble with the weather, they like to get lambs on the ground early to take advantage of an early break.

He said early lambing also meant that after six to eight months, they could send lambs to market and attract a premium ahead of the spring flush before prices possibly dropped $20 to $30 a head.

With marking to start late this week, Mr Barrows estimates lambing percentages this year could be around 85 per cent.

"The maiden mobs are probably not looking too flash but they are always touch and go," he said. "But we have some crossbred mobs that look pretty good and some Merino mobs that have quite a few lambs.

"But until we get them in for marking, it's a bit hard to tell."

Last year the Barrows averaged 95 per cent for marking and for the last two years have been using lick feeders to maintain condition scores throughout the year.

In the lead-up to lambing and during, they also use trail feeders, giving ewes and their lambs a lupin/oat ration.

Just up the road, neighbours Philip and Jason Stone have started marking the crossbred lambs and recorded 89 to 90 per cent on two mobs and 100 per cent on another two mobs at a separate farm.

Last year they pregnancy-tested their ewes and recorded a lambing percentage of 102 lambs on the ground. Every year they use three rams to mate mobs of 100 ewes.

At this stage, they say numbers look reasonable despite a high number of fox and eagle attacks on lambs.

But Jason said a week of strong winds in March, coupled with the wet summer had also impacted on numbers with some ewe losses.

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