Seasonal conditions across large sections of Australia continue to bite rapidly driving ewe numbers down.
Yet these challenging conditions could represent the best opportunity for farmers if they take the critical steps to manage the ewe flock and increase lamb survival rates.
The breeding flock has already dropped over 10 per cent in the last two years and the slide will continue if current seasonal conditions and high mutton prices prevail.
With horrendous scanning results in early joined flocks and really tough lamb survival conditions, 2019 is brewing as the perfect storm for the lowest number of lambs marked across Australia in over 100 years.
The concern is that we are currently eating our flock faster than we can produce and therefore to meet demand we are eroding our national flock capital.
With record high mutton and lamb prices, those farmers who take the steps to "produce more from less" and mark as many live lambs as possible from the remaining ewe base, will be the ones best placed for success.
Unfortunately, the motto for 2019 for many farms is threatening to be 'produce less from less'.
Our national ewe base is at an historic low and on average one-third of ewes will produce no lamb at all either from ewe death (5pc), scanning dry (10pc) or failing to rear any lambs at all (15pc). Add to these stats that this season has been so tough for some the decision has been made not to even join their ewes.
Increasing lamb survival
Lamb survival is important from every perspective - animal welfare, industry image, pride in farming - and of course economically it is critical too.
There has been investment in the ewe's pregnancy, from buying the ram and managing the ewe in order to get the lambs desired. Farmers are already accepting a wool production penalty because the ewe is feeding her foetus and consequently producing less wool. Therefore, if the lamb dies, farmers not only lose the lamb and all the potential benefits, but also bear the opportunity cost of having less wool.
Impact on profit
Improving lamb survival takes the handbrake off production, lifts profits and improve welfare outcomes. Improving lamb survival by 20pc can potentially add $30,000 in profit per annum per 1000 ewes.
For instance, at 70pc lamb survival on a flock scanning at 150pc, the marking rate is 105pc. Whereas a 90pc lamb survival on a flock scanning at 150pc gives a marking rate of 135pc, providing a 30pc gain.
At a modest $7 per kg lamb price, my research shows that the value of each extra lamb after the cost of production (net profit) is approximately $100. Across a 1000 strong flock this has the potential to return an additional $30,000.
Future of the sheep industry
Lamb survival is the most important issue the Australian sheep industry needs to address. Even though farmers are being rewarded with record sheep meat prices and may argue the limited supply is benefiting their operation, the reality is the dearth in supply is pushing consumers to pay extreme prices.
Consumers are accepting a 220pc price premium over pork for lamb in the global marketplace.
The low level of supply means processors are forced to accept all lambs they get regardless of quality. The variation in the quality is not reflected with a variation of pricing. Even with the advent of DEXA scanning and ongoing innovation with hyperspectral cameras to measure IMF in lamb at line speed for processing plants, it will be problematic for processors to introduce and enforce value base marketing with the current supply dynamic.
Both of these examples have real potential to impact on consumer experience over time therefore risking the sustainability of demand unless the consumers core needs, of a consistent supply of a quality product are met. This means extreme high prices today may mean a much smaller industry tomorrow.
Producing more from less
With limited resources available the key to producing more live lambs from the existing ewe base is through more targeted resource allocation. This includes pregnancy scanning for multiples and deferentially managing dry, single and multiple bearing ewes. This is critical as the two primary causes of lambs loss are directly influenced by ewe nutrition during pregnancy and lambing.
The first is typically caused when twin bearing ewes are underfed in late pregnancy and lambing, resulting in:
- Low birth weight lambs,
- Hungry ewes that will drift off the birth,
- Poor colostrum and milk production.
The second biggest cause of lamb loss is typically dystocia, most often caused by excess nutrition of single bearing ewes, resulting in:
- High birth weight lambs prone to getting stuck,
- High condition score ewes increases lambing difficulties, and
- Wasting resources by over feeding single ewes.
A bigger opportunity exists with twins than singles - a low single lamb marking rate is 75pc and a high result is 95pc whereas a low twin marketing rate is 80pc and a high result is 180pc.
Scanning for multiples allows:
- Preferential treatment post scanning to achieve condition targets - singles versus twins,
- Ability to care/target more at risk ewes proactively - such as skinny twin bearing ewes,
- Prioritise feed and parasite management during lactation to weaning, and
- Prioritise feed post weaning to aid ewe recovery to increase subsequent conception rates.
In summary its the effective allocation of farm resources including supplementary feed, pasture and the haystack on the sheep's back, along with paddock allocation for lambing, to get the best outcome for lamb survival rates.
Download the top five tips to improve lamb survival at jasontrompf.com.