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Informing future sheep extension strategies to improve reproduction and related welfare outcomes

Project start date: 30 May 2014
Project end date: 30 June 2017
Publication date: 30 November 2017
Project status: Completed
Livestock species: Sheep, Lamb
Relevant regions: National
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The key challenge for the Australia sheep industry in sheep reproduction and related welfare outcomes is to improve lamb survival rates. This project aimed to gain an insight into producer knowledge, attitudes, skills, aspirations and practice in relation to improving reproduction and welfare outcomes, and document the drivers and barriers to adopting best practices that are known to increase lamb survival, such as; pregnancy scanning for multiples, differential management of single and twin bearers by condition scoring, using feed budgets to provide appropriate nutrition, and paddock allocation. The project also sought to understand the various opinions and advice provided by sheep industry service providers in relation to sheep reproduction and the associated management practices.

This consultation was undertaken to inform future extension strategies to deliver improved sheep reproduction rates and better welfare outcomes, and to provide a base-line for the current adoption levels of best practice such as pregnancy scanning for multiples. This report also provides a review of the current and likely future gains in lamb marking rates against SISP and MISP targets.

The reproduction situation analysis conducted in this report provides context of the changes in lamb marking rates in the ten years between 2006 and 2016. It was found that Australian lamb marking rates had increased significantly from around 81% to 92% lambs marked to ewes joined, over that period, representing about a 1% gain in marking rate per annum. The key factors contributing to the gains in national marking rates were; a doubling of the number of non-Merino ewes from 15 to 30% of the flock, which consistently mark at least 20% more than Merino to Merino matings; a sequence of best seasons in recent years across south eastern Australia where the majority of the sheep population resides; and the impact of extension programs such as Lifetime Ewe Management and Bred Well Fed Well. Despite the gains in marking rate in the last 10 years, in excess of 12m lambs are still lost in Australia each year, which according to Young et al. (2014), based on 2013 prices were worth over $700m in potential profit.

To inform future extension strategy 386 producers were surveyed, along with 140 pregnancy scanners, 40 ram breeders, and 18 sheep consultants and advisors. The results show that all producer segments surveyed in this project over-estimate current lamb survival rates, at ≥ 80% survival compared to an actual industry average of 70%. Similarly pregnancy scanners, who of all the influencers of sheep producers are directly engaged to help the issue of reproduction rates, also over-estimate the level of lamb survival at 79%. The only segment with a more accurate understanding of lamb survival rates was the sheep consultants who estimated average survival rates to be 73%. This general lack of awareness of the true levels of lamb loss is a critical issue because building awareness, understanding and discontent in relation to any issue are widely recognised as critical precursors for attitude and behavioral change, without which lamb loss will continue to be an insidious issue.

The core issue is a lack of adoption of recognised best practice for improved reproduction rates, particularly scanning for multiples and differential management of singles and twins. The key reasons for the lack of adoption of best-practice resulting in 80% of Australia's ewes not being managed according to requirements are:

  • A lack of recognition of the true level of lamb loss, with all producer segments and producer influencing segments of the Australian sheep industry surveyed, over estimating lamb survival rates, in particular producers that don't scan for multiples (75% of Australian producers),
  • A lack of understanding that the majority of lamb loss is under the producers control,
  • A lack of awareness that scanning for multiples and differential management of singles and twins significantly improves lamb survival and flock profitability,
  • Some producers scanning for multiples not using information to full effect by either not differentially managing singles and twins and/or not effectively allocating resources (feed, shelter, paddocks, labour and fencing) on a whole-farm basis to improve lamb survival,
  • Too large of mob sizes of lambing ewes compromising privacy during lambing resulting in poor lamb survival in twins due to exacerbating miss-mothering, and
  • Lack of capacity from pregnancy scanners to deliver scanning for multiples with the required accuracy and repeatability and mixed messages from scanners to producers about ewe management and target survival rates for singles and twins due to a lack of understanding.

More information

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Primary researcher: Department of Economic Development