Learning lessons from Australia’s sheep industry

By Dr. Tim Keady, research officer, Teagasc Athenry

Ewe productivity (number of lambs reared per ewe joined), which has been static for the past few decades, is a combination of: reproduction success; embryonic and lamb survival; and litter size.

SheepNet is an European Union funded project on sheep productivity and involves the six main EU sheep-producing countries (Ireland, France, the UK, Romania, Spain and Italy) and Turkey.

Recently, SheepNet national facilitators visited Australia with the aim of exchanging knowledge and experiences on how to improve ewe productivity.

The Australian sheep industry

Australia is the world’s largest sheepmeat exporter and exports 57% and 92% of its lamb and mutton production respectively.

The value of the sheepmeat industry is approximately €3.3 billion and is increasing annually. The US, China, United Arab Emirates and Qatar are the main markets for Australian lamb and account for 22%, 16%, 9% and 7% of lamb carcass exports respectively.

Australia is the world’s third largest exporter of live sheep; its main markets are Kuwait, Qatar, United Arab Emirates and Oman.

The number of sheep has declined from 170 million sheep in 1990 to 68 million sheep; 37 million are breeding ewes and about 75% of these are Merino.

The average number of lambs reared per ewe joined is 0.95 and has increased by 10% over the last 10 years. Since 1990, the volume of wool produced has declined by 60%; the Australian sheep industry has changed focus, changing from being predominantly wool orientated to a combination of meat and wool.

Farm quality assurance is seen as essential in gaining and maintaining market access. Once a market is accessed, it’s up to the marketers to do their job and increase Australia’s share of the market.

Wool production is an important commodity in the Australian sheep industry. The value of the wool industry is approximately €2 billion. The price that producers receive for wool increased by 35% in the last year.

Farm-gate prices

Australian sheep producers are in a good space at the moment considering the prices that they are receiving for their produce.

During the visit, producers were receiving €4/kg for carcass plus a payment for the skin (€8.30 and €3.20 for Merino and crossbred lambs respectively). The optimum lamb carcass weight is between 25kg and 27kg; but farmers are not discounted for carcasses between 18kg and 32kg.

Wool price has increased by 35% in the past year. Currently Merino wool, because of its fine fibre, is achieving €10.90/kg and a Merino ewe will produce up to 7kg of wool.

Farm visits

The SheepNet team visited a number of farms during the visit. A summary of the farms visited is as follows:

  1. Great optimism in the sheep sector due to the current high wool and meat price. Farmers also receive a payment for the hide of all animals slaughtered;
  2. Large flocks (mean flock size in Australia is 1,390 ewes) which lamb outdoors. Some large feedlots – the group visited a feedlot which finished 70,000 lambs annually;
  3. Limited labour – in many cases the farmers and one other. Shearing, fencing and other farm tasks are contracted out;
  4. A key interest in knowledge exchange. Many producers are prepared to pay to attend knowledge exchange programmes aimed at increasing ewe lifetime performance. These focus on issues including body condition score, nutrition and pasture management. The cost is €1,350 per participant. On completion of the course, each participant receives €770 from the Australian Wool Innovation and Meat and Livestock Australia levy bodies.