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Sheep flock to increase to over 68 million

09 June 2021

Favourable seasonal conditions for the first half of 2021 coupled with a positive outlook will result in a faster national flock rebuild, according to Meat & Livestock Australia’s (MLA) 2021 sheep industry projections half year update, released today.

Australia’s sheep flock continues to undergo a significant rebuilding phase and is predicted to grow by 6.3% to 68.1 million head, this follows the flock falling to its lowest level on record in 2020, at 64 million head, after years of drought.

MLA Market information manager, Stephen Bignell, said the speed of the rebuild was also a result of lower than previously expected sheep and lamb slaughter in 2021.

“Lower slaughter numbers for sheep and lamb, which MLA are now forecasting to be 6.1 million head and 20.3 million head respectively, are being driven by continued good weather in key sheep producing regions. These strong seasonal conditions are encouraging producers to retain more ewes and ewe lambs for breeding purposes,” Mr Bignell said.

“Despite being revised down from the February projections, lamb slaughter is still expected to be above levels from last year, when 20 million head were slaughtered.

“In 2020, lamb processing capacity in Victoria was impacted by COVID-19 social distancing measures in the latter half on the year. Therefore, it is expected that lamb slaughter could accelerate in the second half of 2021 and exceed 2020 levels.”

Mr Bignell also said improved conditions in Western Australia are likely to impact producer intentions in the state.

“It is likely that the wet autumn and good outlook for winter will cease any flock liquidation in the state, stopping the flow of sheep to east that lead to 2 million head being trucked across the Nullarbor in 2020,” Mr Bignell said.

“The favourable conditions in WA will encourage producers to rebuild their flocks. A recent MLA benchmarking report found that mixed sheep and cropping farms in WA are the most profitable in the world, reinforcing the rebuild mentality in the state.”

Mr Bignell said average national lamb carcase weights will continue to be underpinned by improved seasonal conditions across key sheep regions and relatively high prices in the first quarter of 2021 that are providing producers with an incentive to add additional kilos to animals.

“Better conditioned lambs will see average national lamb carcase weights for 2021 lift marginally to 24.4kg, up 0.4kg/head on 2020 levels. MLA has not predicted significantly increased weights in 2021, given 2020 was also a year with abundant feed that assisted good lamb growth.

“Continued feed availability is underpinning average sheep carcase weights which are expected to remain in line with 2020 weights at 25.8kg/head. Greater investments into sheep lot and containment feeding during the 2018-19 drought supported carcase weights in periods of pasture shortfalls.”

Saleyard prices in 2021 are expected to remain high, though slightly lower than the records set in 2020 and 2019, indicative of a flock rebuild that is maturing.

As the predictions suggest, the sheep flock is in good shape to rebuild and grow, which will help Australia continue its position as a global export leader now and into the future.

The 2021 Sheep Industry Projections are available here.