Beef + Lamb New Zealand (B+LNZ) economist Andrew Burtt said there could be a drop of 10% in lambs slaughtered in the 2013-14 season, from this year’s 20.3 million to 18.2m.
This was lower than the previous record set in 2011-12, when 18.9 million lambs were slaughtered in a year hit hard by storm losses.
But the loss could have been worse. Burtt said farmers managed stock well as the drought impact unfolded across the North Island, meaning the decline was not as great as expected.
“We are getting a bit of feeling the drought was well managed early on. Many got in and sold early in anticipation.
“When it came to mating, it was often done earlier than normal to take advantage of what ewe conditions there were at that time.”
Barring the impact of spring storms, the lambing story will be very much a tale of two islands. The North Island has borne the brunt of the drought’s impact and subsequent cold weather through the centre of the island.
With sheep numbers spread 50:50 between the two islands, early scanning data for the North Island indicates lambing percentages will be 10-20% down on this season.
“That is quite variable depending on the region, however,” Burtt said. “The East Coast is at the higher end, northern North Island at the lower end.”
“There are some big holes in feed budgets. Some farmers are going to need to keep 35% of their lambs to get their numbers up."
The Taihape region was another at the higher end, given the tough summer that merged into a cold, low-growth winter almost overnight.
For the South Island, scanning figures are closer to historic levels after two relatively good seasons. Canterbury numbers were expected to be only 5% lower.
Translating these figures into lambing percentages could result in the South Island experiencing about 120% lambing, against 123% last year, Burtt said.
The North Island estimate was 115%, compared to 123% last spring.
Observers placed slaughter numbers up to 500,000 higher than usual as a result of dry ewe culling because of the drought.
But B+LNZ estimates for total breeding ewe numbers this season put that figure lower, with estimates of 20.2 million breeding ewes for next season, compared to the 20.4 million measured by Statistics New Zealand for last year.
“We have seen a lot fewer lambs born to hoggets in absolute terms, although the total number is not hugely significant,” Burtt said.
Estimates were the growing trend to mate hoggets, which accounted last year for 5% of lambs, or 1.3 million, had been reversed by the drought, he said.
“That is now around 3.5% and will put lambs from hoggets at about 900,000.”
Manawatu-based farm advisor Gary Massicks said the drop in lambing percentages in the Taihape region would be at least 15% and there were concerns about flock vulnerability heading into early spring.
“There are some big holes in feed budgets. Some farmers are going to need to keep 35% of their lambs to get their numbers up.
“However, there will also be the dilemma, if those lambs are worth good money, there will be cashflow pressure there to take the money.”
He estimated 20% fewer hoggets and only 80% of ewes had been mated on some properties.
“It will take two years for most farms to get their budgets back in line with where they need to be.”
Eastern Wairarapa farmer Peter Gaskin was one who acted early last summer as conditions turned tough for finishing stock.
“We made some big calls early on in November, when I had a feeling the season suggested it was not going to be a good finishing season, thanks to the poor spring we had.”
The summer had been a relatively typical Wairarapa affair, but the spring had made it worse, he said.
He was looking forward to a normal lambing percentage of about 130% this spring.
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