Sheep numbers decline at a slower annual pace as farmers rebuild flocks

New Zealand sheep numbers have been declining as farmers chased higher returns for cattle.

The steady decline in New Zealand's sheep numbers continued at a slower pace over the past year as farmers in some areas rebuilt their flocks following drought, natural disasters and the impact of facial eczema.

Sheep numbers reduced to an estimated 27.34 million as at June 30 from 27.58 million a year earlier, according to the latest survey from the Economic Service of farmer-owned industry organisation Beef + Lamb New Zealand. The annual 0.9 percent decline compares with last year's 5.3 percent drop, and marks the fifth consecutive fall since 2012 when sheep numbers rose 0.4 percent.

New Zealand now has about six sheep for every person, down from 22 per person in 1982 when there were more than 70 million sheep. Most regions reported fewer breeding ewes resulting in a 1.9 percent total decline to 17.8 million over the past year, although numbers lifted 0.3 percent in Marlborough-Canterbury following a prolonged drought. Still, the national hogget flock is up 1.7 percent to 8.71 million due to flock rebuilding on the East Coast and Marlborough-Canterbury after a number of difficult years caused by drought and natural disasters, Beef + Lamb said. It expects lamb numbers this spring to increase 1.1 percent to 23.53 million.

"Despite the small decrease in the number of breeding ewes, the lamb crop is expected to be up," said Beef + Lamb Economic Service chief economist Andrew Burtt. "This is the result of several factors, including continued improvements in productivity by farmers leading to better ewe lambing percentages, good feed supplies and a lift in the number of ewe hoggets mated."

New Zealand sheep numbers have been declining as farmers chased higher returns for cattle, and Beef + Lamb noted the latest survey showed continued growth in beef production as farmers move towards livestock that are less labour-intensive and currently more profitable.

The country's beef cattle herd increased by 2.8 percent to 3.63 million, driven by a 5 percent lift in weaner cattle numbers to 1.15 million, reflecting the high cost of buying older cattle as replacements, and good grass availability. Meanwhile, the size of the country's beef breeding cow herd was unchanged at 954,000.

Beef + Lamb's annual survey of livestock numbers provides a snapshot of the productive base for meat and wool production in the 2017/18 farming and meat export years. Meat is the country's second-largest export commodity behind dairy products, while wool exports are the country's 19th most valuable commodity export.

(BusinessDesk)