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The reasons Australia no longer rides on the sheep's back are well known

15 Mar 2021

The reasons Australia no longer rides on the sheep’s back are well known


Australian farmers believe the reasons many of them ended their love affair with sheep are simple.

In fact they wonder why their industry body needs to invest precious sheep levies looking into it at all?

The numbers are well known.

The national sheep flock has fallen from 180 million in the early 1970s to about 64 million today, its lowest point for a century.

The devastating wool price crash of the 1990s and the five million bale stockpile that resulted is the chief reason people say are the obvious causes along with droughts, a move into cropping and wild dog attacks.

Those commenting on Facebook across the Australian Community Media network on the industry’s launch of a study into the reasons also believe sheep production is too hard work, for little return.

The industry is pressing ahead to learn the exact causes of this continued decline so it can try and stop it.

The industry wants to document why the decline is continuing despite better prices for wool and particularly for sheep meat.

It says the future of Australia’s sheep meat industry is at stake.

Sheep Producers Australia chief executive officer Stephen Crisp said numbers of sheep have fallen below the critical mass needed.

“The fact is we are at a point where the infrastructure of the industry, the numbers of processors that can be supported, the ability of the live export sector to have a consistent supply are under threat,” Mr Crisp said.

“Low numbers also hamper the ability of industry to test grading schemes and trial alternative supply chains at scale, and improve our overall industry returns as quickly as technology and markets will allow.”

Mr Crisp said the industry could not afford to make more assumptions on what went wrong “we have to know”.

“Even to maintain our share of world sheep meat exports we need to have a flock of around 75 to 80 million. That requires a reversal in trend, not just a reversal in season.”

Mr Crisp’s organisation has teamed with Meat & Livestock Australia and Animal Health Australia to try and learn why sheep are still out of fashion and how to change it.

They want to “to get a better handle on the thinking behind producers staying in, getting out of, or getting into sheep farming (wool and meat), understanding what initiatives could be put in place to reverse the declining trend in sheep numbers”.

MLA and AHA are co-investing sheep meat levies each receives with the support of Sheep Producers Australia.

“There are animal health and biosecurity implications that would need to be forward planned for if we want to be ready for higher sheep numbers,” AHA’s Dr Simon Humphrys said.

“It might include greater aggregation of sheep through saleyards, additional transport of sheep, greater sheep densities within production systems, management of ewes for higher reproductive rates, and understanding what new entrants into sheep production really need to know first and foremost about biosecurity and sheep health before that change in dynamic begins.”

This research will include interviews with past and present sheep producers to better know where to invest in programs to bolster supplies of sheep meat.

These interviews are expected to start next month.

ACM readers have already offered their thoughts, which we have passed on to the research partners.

“As a sheep farmer I believe the problem lays with the fact that ewes are be slaughtered to fill quotas. Farmers are finding it increasingly difficult to get breeders to produce the numbers we need. Saleyards need to separate ewes for their local farmers and numbers will rise rapidly,” Dave Maynard said.

“It’s not hard to understand this issue … wool volatility is the most likely cause, plus high labor costs to take care of sheep properly,” Chick Olsson commented.

“Falling wool price crashes in 1970 and 1991, drought after drought draining cash reserves, changing to beef production, wild dogs ravaging sheep flocks, overseas countries buying Aussie farms to supply food for their overseas populations. Government red tape reducing farming practices,” were the thoughts of Greg Clark.

“Two very severe droughts have had a lot to do with decline in sheep population. Farmers that had to destock to a bare minimum or to even no stock at all and went without farm income for several years,” Jody Vernon said.

“Wool prices crashed and never went up and farmers went full time cropping … and most will never come back if wool picked up. Because their kids don’t no anything else but cropping … and there lot of smaller farmers are selling out,” Alex Miller said.

“How would we shear 180 million these days?” John Ryan asked.

“The work involved with sheep is too hard for a lot of farmers. I would have to admit it tested my wife and I to the limit hand feeding through the 2018-2019 droughts and we are dedicated sheep farmers,” Glen Far said.

FLOCK DECLINE: Sheep are out of fashion, and are too much hard work – according to some readers. But the industry is determined to stop the decline.


Article by Chris McLennan. Published in Stock Journal. 14 Mar 2021, 8 a.m.

Chris McLennan@McLennanCm         Stock Journal News

The reasons Australia no longer rides on the sheep’s back are well known | Stock Journal | South Australia

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