Australia’s sheep breeding flock could be headed down a slippery slope below 40 million head for the first time in recent history.
This was the realisation made by some members of the lamb forecasting advisory committee, following the release of raw data captured in the most recent quarterly survey of sheep breeders’ intentions, conducted by Meat & Livestock Australia (MLA) and Australian Wool Innovation.
While the full report is yet to be released, the initial numbers in the September-held survey indicate a rise to 43.2 million head from the 40.7 million head predicted a year ago.
But consensus among the advisory committee has recommended this does not reflect the true state of the national flock, as the damage inflicted by the drought since the survey was conducted could easily wipe a further two to three million head from the total.
Elders Southern Australian livestock operations manager Ron Rutledge said it was the figures not contained in the survey results that were most distressing.
For example, the survey in NSW alone, which had 610 responses compared to 717 in the previous survey, had average flocks of less than 2000 head.
“Obviously these figures have been willingly provided by smaller-scale operators and do not reflect the happenings of the large corporate growers who are not so willing to release their numbers,” Mr Rutledge said.
“It is common knowledge that many of these large operations have made huge inroads into their ewe numbers to reduce the cost of feeding which will sway these findings sharply in the opposite direction.”
He said it was known some large operations had culled multiple age groups.
“And it was the common thought of the processors at the table [at the committee meeting] that a significant number of ewes slaughtered in recent times have carried unborn lambs,” he said.
He said these were progeny that would not see the light of day, which would have a devastating impact on the available lambs for slaughter in the future.
While NSW was where sheep culling was at its highest, extensive rates have also been seen in South Australia.
Contrastingly, Tasmia surveyed a steady number, Queensland recorded an increase due to rebuilding their dog fence, and Victoria was another exception.
Ewe numbers in the southern state were flagged as being higher, up 16 per cent to 10.1 million, on a year ago, but Mr Rutledge credited this to the flood of numbers moved out of other drought-affected states.
But Victorian figures showed a decline compared to the June survey total, which the committee suggested was the delayed effects of the drought moving south.
Chris Stoney, who runs three properties in Mansfield, Morwell and Balranald, NSW, was one producer who has been buying sheep up north.
Mr Stoney said rather than feeding older ewes, he sold these and purchased younger ewes out of Hay, NSW.
“We knew they would have better conception rates,” he said.
Mr Rutledge said the full impact would not be felt until next year.
“In many areas, and particular around the Hay district, where the big flocks are grazed, they might not get their rams to their ewes,” he said.
“For the processing industry, this would be devastating as the processing sector in Victoria has grown its capacity and the reality is that lamb numbers next year could potentially be back by 20-30pc.
“By this time next year, without a significant break in the weather, the sheep industry could be decimated.”
Forecasts of the amount of wool to come off the national flock also suggest a significant reduction in ewe numbers.
The Australian Wool Production Forecasting Committee (AWPFC) brought forward its usual December meeting to November to provide an updated forecast for the remainder of the current season.
Its revised forecast estimated shorn wool production in 2018/19 at 305 million kilograms greasy, down by 10.8pc from 2017/18.
AWPFC chairman Russell Pattinson said the second forecast made in August, at 322mkg, was contingent on how the season progressed over spring.
“Tough seasonal conditions have continued in many regions and as the wool textile industry is monitoring the situation closely, it was important to provide updated information to the market,” Mr Pattinson said.
A processor member of the advisory committee, who wished to remain anonymous, said they have been hearing that substantially less ewes have been joined.
The processor said with the condition score of those ewes joined not been conducive to good conception, scanning rates have also been “terrible”.
“Add this to an elevated ewe slaughter for the past three years and it is hard to believe there could be a rise in ewe numbers, and it is not possible there will be the same or more lambs for the coming year,” the processor said.
“As a business, we can’t see much past the end of April before difficult times will be approached.”
The processor said concerns surrounding the accuracy of the survey had grown over time, with forecasts “not actually happening”.
An MLA spokesperson said some of the recent survey results did not meet expectations, but that this can change due to the volatility of the season.
The spokesperson said input from the committee enabled the results to be as reflective of the market as possible.
MLA would work with its service provider to review the methodology of the survey.
The full survey results are due to be published in late January.