Farmers face stock shrinkage dilemma

WA sheep farmers are facing a dilemma – meat and wool prices are approaching 50-year highs and the State is fast running out of sheep.

The drought conditions that have hit WA this year have reduced the feed available for livestock. In previous years when drought conditions have plagued the State this usually meant the harrowing task of destroying starving sheep.

However, with meat prices high, many farmers are taking the chance to get top dollar for their sheep at the abattoir.

Wool prices are pushing up to more than $1.10 a kilogram clean – with the grease and other contaminants removed. Greasy wool is usually worth about 65 per cent to 70 per cent of clean wool.

Elders wool marketing manager Ken Walker said the national sheep flock was estimated to be 113 million head – the lowest in 50 years.

“In WA we’ve forecast wool production of 495 million kilograms, the lowest in 50 years. We’re expecting a 5 per cent drop in production in WA next year,” he said.

“People have been progressively going out of sheep over the past 10 years.”

Mr Walker said a wool bale was selling for an average $1,260.

“We exported 640 million kilograms of wool last year. This year we’re only going to produce 495 million kilograms,” he said.

According to the Department of Agriculture, WA’s sheep flock was estimated to be 25.2 million head in 2000-01. There are no more up-to-date figures available.

Pastoralists and Graziers Association president Barry Court said there was a risk that WA would not be able to meet its livesheep shipment obligations within two months.

“The drought is diminishing sheep numbers,” he said.

“Farmers are able to sell their sheep at top dollar. Wool prices are good. With futures and the like we’ll be able to sustain the prices.

“We could see this coming with the diminishing of the wool stockpile. Now people are starting to realise that there is no wool around.”

Mr Court said that, while farmers were being able to get good prices for their sheep and the wool, a crisis was looming.

“The big problems are going to come when we get the next good season,” he said.

“Farmers won’t be able to buy sheep to rebuild their flocks.”

WAFarmers president Colin Nicholl said it would take time to rebuild WA’s flocks.

“You can’t turn a tap on and increase production in a week. It takes years,” he said.

“Australia has a good quarantine record so that needs to be taken into account as well when we consider how to increase flocks.”

Mr Nicholl said high meat prices had forced some farmers to move away from wool sheep.

“They’ve gone into meat sheep such as Damaras and Karakuls, along with some fat tails and British breeds,” he said.

Damaras are a Middle Eastern sheep that don’t need shearing because they shed their wool. However, their meat is sought after in the Middle East. Karakuls are also in demand there.

“There is a concern that abattoirs will struggle next year because of the low sheep numbers,” Mr Nicholl said.

“At the moment Fletchers abattoir in Albany and the WA Meat Marketing Company’s Katanning abattoir face closure.”

Mr Walker said the move towards exotic meat sheep breeds had caused a problem, although the way meat prices were heading, Merino lambs were becoming as valuable as the exotics.

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