Monday, April 22, 2024

Kill rate sparks breeding flock concern

Neal Wallace
A high mutton kill has commentators worried the country’s core ewe breeding flock could take a sharp fall.
Reading Time: 2 minutes

AgriHQ senior analyst Mel Croad says 3.1 million ewes were forecast to be killed this year, but up to February 13 – 19 weeks into the season – the kill was well on the way, sitting at 2.2m.

The five-year average kill for the remaining 33 weeks of the season is nearly 1.5m, potentially pushing this year’s ewe kill to about 3.7m.

Croad believes some farmers are looking at the capital tied up in breeding flocks and looking for less financial risk.

Croad says land-use change to forestry and farmers taking advantage of a higher than usual mutton schedule by culling their flocks more heavily, are other factors.

Export data from October to February reveals this season’s early and high mutton kill, with 52,000 tonnes exported compared to a five-year average for that period of 47,700t.

March is one of the highest months for mutton exports and Croad says demand from China is high and it is known meat companies have ewes on grazing waiting for processing space.

“The kill has started really fast, it is well ahead of last year and the five-year average and I think we will see a kill comparable to 2017-18, but then we had one million extra ewes on the ground,” she said.

Between 2017-18 and 2018-19, the breeding ewe flock fell from 17.8m to 17.2m. In 2020-21 the flock numbered 16.9m.

Croad says there are reasons for optimism given demand and prices at the summer ewe fairs.

Farmers in areas hit by drought are rebuilding and most stock purchased at those fairs were for breeding with processors largely absent.

While pressure appears to be mounting on the NZ ewe flock, Croad says Australia is aggressively rebuilding after several years of drought.

Beef + Lamb NZ chief economist Andrew Burtt expects the small decline in ewe numbers to continue.

“We’re going to see a small decline in numbers that we have seen in recent years,” he said.

While high demand and prices have driven a sharp and early start to the season, Burtt says companies have told him they expect that flow to ease.

Flocks are being rebuilt in drought hit areas and the current returns were attractive, he says.

The excellent lambing conditions over most of the country last spring has artificially elevated total sheep numbers and the total number of stock available.

The near-record 2020 lambing percentage was 130.3%, just slightly lower than spring 2019 when 131% was achieved.

Burtt says productivity improvements are also impacting the total number of breeding ewes needed.

“Solely looking at livestock numbers doesn’t tell the full picture,” he said.

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