Duddy confident producers can 'breed out of drought'

Sheep producers can 'breed out of drought'

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Prominent livestock consultant Geoff Duddy says he is confident sheep producers can breed themselves out of the drought.

Prominent livestock consultant Geoff Duddy says he is confident sheep producers can breed themselves out of the drought.

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As some parts of the country come out of drought and into better seasonal conditions, how exactly can sheep producers take advantage of the change in fortune?

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As some parts of the country come out of drought and into better seasonal conditions, how exactly can sheep producers take advantage of the change in fortune?

Prominent livestock consultant Geoff Duddy, who runs Sheep Solutions out of Inglewood, Queensland, but works with sheep producers across the country, said the "stars have aligned" for eastern Australia.

"The timing of the autumn break has been fantastic, we couldn't ask for anything better," Mr Duddy said.

"That's provided producers the opportunity to cut back or stop grain feeding and this has been a huge saving economically."

He said early pregnancy scanning results had been positive, which was exactly what sheep producers needed coming out of drought.

"Given those ewes that are being joined or are coming into joining have had a lift in their body reserves, we'd expected to see an improvement in conception rates, and a high percentage of twins," he said.

"Scanners I've spoken with have confirmed this to be the case, particularly in Merino ewes.

"And some early marking results are showing some good lamb survival as well."

For those looking to ramp up production, he said buying replacement ewes was a risky decision given how expensive they were at the moment.

"It's going to take at least two years to get the return back on those ewes and that's relying on increasingly high sheepmeat prices, a solid wool market and good lambing results in the next couple of years," he said.

He said we frequently saw 'green grass fever' when coming out of a drought, with some producers looking to buy new stock as quickly as possible.

"But it worries me people going in and buying big numbers," he said.

"If the strength falls out of the market, it's going to take another year longer for a producer to get their money back."

Mr Duddy said while it was impossible to know exactly what was to come, he did have confidence that the market would hold most of its strength.

"Producers have confidence in the sheepmeat markets; processors have been doing a fantastic job in terms of securing, and supplying, high value markets and have paid record prices to do so," he said.

"What we need now is for a sustained growth in our breeding ewe base and annual lamb and mutton numbers.

"This should bring store lamb prices back to more realistic values relative to finished lamb values and allow lamb finishers greater opportunity in terms of achieving reasonable profits."

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He said his biggest tip for producers was to focus on their own core flock to maximise production of those.

"I've got a lot of confidence in producers that they can breed out of this," he said.

"The industry as a whole has learned a lot in the last five to 10 years when it comes to reproduction and lamb survival.

"Producers need to continue to focus on improved breeding and lamb survival practices - get the little buggers on the ground and keep them alive.

"There is, and should remain for the next few years, more profit to be made in selling a store lamb than taking them through to saleable weights."

One recommendation he was hesitant to give but said could work if people were desperate was to join more often.

"You could go into an accelerated mating program, where you can look to lamb three times - instead of twice - within a two-year period," he said.

"You could look at doing that in the short term to increase cash flow and numbers."

But he said this option was fraught with difficulties and risk.

"If the season goes against you and all of a sudden you've got sheep pregnant when they normally wouldn't be, you'll have to wean lambs early and look to get those ewes back in condition so they'll join again," he said.

He said producers should focus on lamb survival and keeping twins alive.

"We've come a long way with lamb survival; it is cheaper per unit of product, whether it be per kilogram of wool or kilogram of meat, to keep a twin lamb alive," he said.

He recommended enrolling in reputable programs like the Lifetime Ewe Management course or the Bred Well Fed Well workshop for advice and tips on lamb survival.

Mr Duddy said there may also be an opportunity to buy in wethers and make money in an accelerated shearing program.

"It comes down to what you can get wethers for," he said.

"At the moment, you're looking at about $160 [a head] to buy in Merino wethers, so it will be about two to three years before you get a full return on that investment.

"If these wethers were shorn as part of an eight-monthly shearing program, the additional wool cheque, plus the benefits in terms of no crutching, less chemical use and improvements in body condition, will all help with cash flow."

He said it was actually a win-win situation retaining Merino wethers.

"Of our slaughter lambs, around one-third are pure Merino, so if we retain more on farm, we'll see less available for the meat trade over the next few years, and that will help keep lamb prices up," he said.

Mr Duddy said all of these decisions came down to doing the sums and he recommended every sheep producer work out how long it was going to take for any decision to pay off.

He also said if producers could, they should work to improve their pasture base.

"Another option instead of buying in new breeders is agistment, or you could lease your property out," he said.

"Land prices have stayed strong, and a lot of people are interested in leasing rather than buying.

"If you're middle-aged and don't want to sell but need cash flow, leasing or agistment may well be viable options for you in the next five to 10 years."

Mr Duddy said what would work in favour of the country's sheep producers was that it was a "growth industry".

"The sheepmeat industry has been going so strongly for the last 10 years and every year its tended to kick new goals," he said.

"We export close to two-thirds of the lambs we produce; this puts us, to a degree, at the mercy of international markets.

"I am surprised that we haven't seen more of a price correction in lamb and mutton values during the COVID19 saga - perhaps this reflects how strong our industry is."

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