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Australian sheep flock to decline as lamb slaughter breaks record for second consecutive year

29 February 2024

Key points:

  • The sheep flock is expected to reduce slightly driven by record lamb slaughter and elevated sheep turnoff.
  • Lamb slaughter is projected to reach record levels two years in a row, climbing 23.7 million in 2024.
  • Sheep slaughter to remain high, driven by a large and productive breeding flock.

After three years of consecutive growth, the Australian sheep flock is set to decrease by 2.9% to 76,500,000 in 2024, according to the latest Sheep Industry Projections from Meat & Livestock Australia (MLA).

During the 2020-2022 rebuild phase, producer focus on productivity and genetics has led to impressive marking rates across the sheep flock. However, the shift from beneficial weather conditions to average conditions in 2023 led to elevated turnoff of unproductive breeding stock, resulting in a 46.7% lift to sheep slaughter.

According to Stephen Bignell, Manager of Market Information at MLA, as the sheep turnoff will mostly be limited to older, unproductive ewes, this year’s lamb cohort is expected to remain solid, but slightly smaller, than previous years.

“The current resilience of the sheep flock means that high lamb slaughter will have a less intense impact on the national flock size than in previous maintenance periods. Meaning that there will be a decrease in overall flock numbers, but not as dramatic as in comparative years,” Mr Bignell said.

“After 2024, the flock is expected to stabilise and remain above the ten-year average.”

Slaughter and production are projected to peak in 2024, causing record supply of Australian sheepmeat into the global market.

This comes after Australia produced the most lamb on record in the calendar year 2023, with 599,461 tonnes of lamb being produced in 2023, putting it 11.6% higher than 2022, which was another record year.

As the largest exporter of sheepmeat, high Australian production will increase globally traded sheepmeat volumes.

“Economic resilience in the United States and emerging markets will drive demand for lamb, while the outlook for consumer demand in China remains uncertain,” Mr Bignell said.

“Regardless, a shortage of competitor proteins will encourage imports of sheepmeat in high protein consumption markets.”

Lamb production is set to break a new record in 2024, beating the previous year’s record achieved in 2023.

It is projected that lamb production will reach 621,000 tonnes in 2024, a 9% or 54,000 tonnes increase compared to 2023 figures. If this eventuates it will be 21.3% or 109,359 tonnes above the 10-year average.

Next year, the lamb production forecast is set to ease to 587,000 tonnes and then rise in 2026 by 19,000 tonnes to 606,000 tonnes due to improved carcase weights.

Mutton production will be the largest since 2006, set to produce 254,000 tonnes in 2024 up by 3.14% on 2023 volumes. Production will remain elevated in 2024 due to a small lift to slaughter.

In 2025, fewer breeding ewes will be turned off. The forecasts for 2025 and 2026 will reach 229,000 and 207,000 tonnes respectively, as the industry moves towards a transitional period where production will stabilise as the industry enters an average season.