AUSTRALIA’S sheep flock is now at its lowest level in more than a century, despite an impressive lift in the reproductive performance of the country’s breeding ewes.
The recently released Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) sheep figures for 2015-16 reveal the nation’s sheep industry is continuing its dramatic restructure as total flock number slides to 67.5 million, a decline of 0.7 per cent from the previous year, and 3pc since the previous census in 2010-11.
“The sheep industry appears to be consolidating itself as a dual product industry with both wool and prime lamb production well supported,” Livestock Dynamics analyst Kimbal Curtis said.
Between the 2010-11 and the 2015-16 census collections, the ABS estimate a decline of 10pc in the number of farms reporting to have sheep to 31,000. This decline reflects both fewer farms running sheep and the increased Estimated Value of Agricultural Operations (EVAO) base of $40,000 used by the ABS, compared to the previous $5000 minimum.
The number of farms reported to be carrying Merino breeding ewes decreased sharply, with 25pc fewer farms with Merino breeding ewes in 2016 than there were in the flock recovery phase of 2011 at just 18,300 farms.
Victoria was the hardest hit in the past year with dry conditions driving a 5pc decrease in flock numbers to 13 million.
The fall in the national sheep flock since 2011 was less than the contraction in the number of sheep farms as a result of a 7pc rise in farm flock sizes to 2170 head.
“There has been what appears to be consolidation with those farms that continue to run sheep managing larger farm flocks,” he said.
“The increase in farm flock size has not been uniform across the country.”
In Western Australia, the average farm flock has increased by 19pc since 2011 to 3,075 head, while farm flocks in South Australia and NSW have increase by 12pc and 10pc respectively.
Two consecutive droughts have decimated Queensland’s flock as total number of sheep and lambs fall to 1.8m, a decline of 49pc in the past five years.
“While there is anecdotal evidence of the start of a recovery in Queensland, it is too early to see this in the data. The data released last week was for the flock in mid-2016,” he said.
Of the national flock decline over the last five years, the largest component has been in the breeding ewe portion which is down 7pc, to 37.2m nationally.
Mr Curtis said the 13pc decline in Merino ewes from 29.1m in 2011 to 25.2m in 2016, was partly offset by a 9pc increase in the number of other breed ewes from 11m to 12m.
But all was not gloom, according to Mr Curtis, who said despite a smaller number of breeding ewes, the number of lambs on hand was 3pc higher in 2016 than it was in 2011.
“Despite 7pc fewer breeding ewes, the total lambs marked has hardly changed,” he said
“And for Merino lambs, the number marked is unchanged at 13.6m. This has been achieved by improved marking rates, better lamb survival and a greater proportion of the Merino ewes run with Merino rams.”
The average marking rate of the Australian flock increased from 89pc in 2011 to 97pc in 2016, while Merino lambs marked has risen from 80pc to 87pc over the same period.
There were 31.6m lambs marked in Australia during 2015-16, of which 43pc were Merino.
“Merinos have lifted their game at the same time which is pretty significant. The increased national marking rate hasn’t been achieved purely by changing away from Merinos,” Mr Curtis said.
“So, while there are less Merino ewes out there, it shows we are managing to maintain merino lamb production.”
The portion of other sheep, mainly wethers, remain unchanged since 2011 at 9m.
Mr Curtis said the data suggested a change in joining patterns with fewer Merino ewes being used for first cross lamb production.
“I estimate that nationally, this has slipped from 35pc of Merino ewes to just 30pc in 2015-16,” he said.
“The percentage is even lower in Queensland and WA, but remains higher in Victoria and SA.”
“I think there is a degree of polarisation going on in the industry with producers using Merino ewes principally for the wool enterprise, and then they are using other breed ewes for prime lamb production rather than rely on first-cross production.
“There are plenty of producers running both operations and first cross production hasn’t disappeared, but the figures suggest there is more of a separation than the previous cross-flow between wool and meat operations.”