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Sheep Reproduction RD&E Impact Assessment released

26 August 2020

An independent impact assessment of sheep reproduction research, development and extension (RD&E) in Australia since 2012 has been released by industry, showing its impact on improving sheep reproduction outcomes.

The recommendations from the assessment will help guide future investments that will occur through the Sheep Reproduction Strategic Partnership (SRSP) to ensure the delivery of the highest impact outcomes for the sheep industry. The approach will support striking the appropriate balance between new R&D investment and adoption-focussed programs of work.

The Sheep Reproduction RD&E Impact Assessment reviewed 120 industry projects and initiatives against the objectives of the Sheep Reproduction RD&E Investment Plan 2012-2017 (SRRIP) and other industry strategies.

The industry-initiated assessment provides a thorough impact assessment of RD&E investments, identifies key impact areas, remaining gaps, and makes recommendations for future industry collaborations.

Beattie Consulting Services and Inspiring Excellence were engaged to undertake the assessment by Meat & Livestock Australia (MLA) on behalf of project partners, Australian Wool Innovation (AWI), and Animal Health Australia (AHA), with input from peak industry councils, Sheep Producers Australia (SPA) and Wool Producers Australia (WPA).

Improving sheep reproduction on-farm is a key priority for Australian sheep and wool producers. MLA, AWI, AHA, WPA and SPA share a commitment to increasing lamb survivability through industry RD&E and adoption of relevant on-farm management practices.

Among the assessment’s key findings is that since the inception of the SRRIP in 2012, a considerable amount of sheep reproduction R&D has generated new knowledge demonstrating pathways to improve reproductive outcomes, however, there remains a significant opportunity to boost adoption to increase reproduction efficiency on-farm.

Relative to what was recommended in the SRRIP, the proportion of total expenditure on sheep reproduction has been 83% higher on applied research, 40% lower on development and extension, and 55% lower on strategic research.

The overall objective of the SRRIP was to achieve an average annual gain of 2% in sheep reproduction rates over the five-year planning period. The assessment found the average annual rate of gain was between 0.6% and 1.5% during that period. However, it found the rate of gain was highly likely to have been negatively influenced by below average seasonal conditions during the SRRIP delivery period.

The assessment also found that since 2012, the Lifetime Ewe Management (LTEM) program, supported by AWI, has had the most influence on sheep reproduction efficiency, impacting the management of around 6 million ewes over six years. The BredWell FedWell (BWFW) program, supported by MLA, also influenced the management of around 1.6 million ewes over the same period.

MLA General Manager, Research, Development and Adoption, Michael Crowley, said the findings will help inform the next steps and priorities for a new Sheep Reproduction Strategic Partnership (SRSP) with a focus on making a material difference to the reproduction performance of the Australian flock.

“MLA is establishing the SRSP together with industry partners to help producers profitably and sustainably increase lamb production through increasing weaning rates and lamb survival,” Mr Crowley said.

“The major priority of the SRSP is to lift lamb survival in the Australian sheep industry through the increased adoption of proven management practices which have been developed through key research projects over the years.

“It will involve industry organisations working collaboratively to develop larger, long-term research, development and adoption initiatives that focus on lamb survival and address a common goal of delivering greater benefits and impacts for the industry.

“The aim is to move away from stand-alone, ad hoc projects, and work towards an agreed vision that develops an investable program of work, ensuring producers can successfully implement practical R&D solutions for their farm businesses to decrease mortality and boost weaning rates.”

AWI General Manager, Research, Jane Littlejohn, welcomed the findings of the Impact Assessment and said: “AWI is pleased to see further evidence of the importance of the Lifetime Ewe Management investment on practice change by producers and growers. The review highlights adoption and AWI will continue to work with MLA to convert past collaborative R&D into extension for the benefit of our common levy payers.”

AHA Biosecurity & Product Integrity Executive Manager, Simon Humphrys, said: “Good health and husbandry of sheep (ewes and rams) underpins reproductive outcomes each breeding season, and for lambs, their lifetime reproductive capacity. The impact assessment reinforced those relationships. At AHA, we are confident the SRSP will make a difference on the ground to producer profitability and through that industry sustainability, as well as adjacent industry sustainability (transporters and processors) at a time where we need to reverse the prevailing trend of fewer sheep. We’re on board.”

SPA Sheep Health & Welfare Policy Manager, William Oldfield, said: “Improving sheep reproductive performance has consistently been identified as a high priority from producers, and is recognised as both a major potential opportunity and risk to social licence. While there has been a longstanding focus on generating new R&D, moving forward it is essential this knowledge is effectively translated into adoptable products for producers.

“Importantly, findings from this report will provide the foundation for a strategic long-term program of work with a clear focus on fostering collaborative partnerships and delivering for sheep producers across Australia. By undertaking this work, industry will be addressing a key component contributing towards ensuring consistency of sheep meat supply both within the domestic market and internationally. Advancements in this field will ultimately result in improvements in the productivity, profitability and sustainability of the sheepmeat sector.”

WPA CEO, Jo Hall, said: “WPA initiated development of the proposal for consideration by MLA, AWI and AHA in collaboration with SPA, following evidence that there was a significant spend of grower levies on sheep reproduction RD&E over recent years, yet the national average lamb survival rate had not increased. It was important to understand why this may have been the case, and the Review provides insights into challenges that can be addressed to achieve improved reproduction outcomes and survival rates. WPA is very supportive of the next iteration of this work, as an industry collective, to deliver practical RD&E solutions to increase survival rates and deliver maximum return on grower levies expended on this important R&D portfolio.”

The Sheep Reproduction RD&E Impact Assessment final report is available to download here.