Strong prices aside, 2019 has continued to be another extremely challenging year for the nation's sheep producers. Drought conditions have persisted in all key sheep production regions, with many producers now running significantly reduced flocks.
The dry conditions have led to sheep slaughter remaining elevated so far in 2019. However, there has been an easing trend through autumn and a slow-down is expected in the second half of the year as producers look to maintain their core breeding flocks. Overall, annual sheep slaughter has been revised slightly upwards and is now expected to fall 11% year-on-year, to 8.5 million head.
A reduced breeding flock and generally poor lambing rates, combined with a poor weather outlook for winter, is expected to disrupt lamb supply in the coming months. For the first quarter of 2019, lamb slaughter remained close to year-ago levels. However, supply is expected to tighten for the remainder of the year and, without a turnaround in conditions, producers will face similar challenges to last year in getting lambs to finished weights. Forecast national lamb slaughter has remained unchanged and is expected to decline 7% on 2018, to 21.2 million head.
The aforementioned seasonal challenges will drive a contraction in the national sheep flock, which is expected to fall to 65.8 million head by June 2019, down 6.8% year-on-year and an 8.7% fall since 2017.
Focusing on demand, the outlook remains positive for the industry. Both lamb and mutton prices have reached record highs in the last 12 months despite the drought that has gripped the nation. This has been underpinned by strong demand for Australia's sheepmeat exports, which continue to push new highs, bolstered by a declining Australian dollar and limited competition. The growth in demand from China and the US in particular, has translated into strong domestic farm gate prices, with the national mutton indicator breaking through 600¢/kg carcase weight (cwt) in May for the first time and lamb prices now on par with the record highs of August 2018.
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