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Tuesday, November 15, 2016

Fewer merino ewes but more merino lambs

By Angus Brown  |  Source: ABS

Key points

  • Anecdotal evidence suggesting a falling Merino flock and rising crossbred flock is confirmed by ABS official figures, with a few blips.
  • Despite a lower Merino flock, in 2014-15 more merino lambs were produced, and fewer other lambs.
  • Total lambs marked has fallen less than the total ewe flock, suggesting a small shift in Merino joining patterns.

2016-11-15 Ewe Fig 1

2016-11-15 Ewe Fig 2

There is plenty of anecdotal evidence out there regarding the decline of the Merino Ewe flock, and the expansion of dual purpose and meat breed sheep. Believe it or not, there is some data produced on the subject by the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS), and the reported data doesn’t quite match the anecdotal evidence.

Everyone in the wool industry has been bemoaning the decline in the Merino flock for some time.  However, the data produced by the ABS through their annual survey of agricultural business paints a slightly different picture.

From 2009-10 the ABS have reported the number of Merino Breeding Ewes, and ‘Other’ Breeding Ewes.  Conventional thinking would have it that the Merino Ewe flock has been steadily declining, while Other Ewes have been on the rise.  Figure 1 tells a different story.

Since 2009-10 national Merino Ewe numbers have declined, falling from 30.4 to 26.8 million head, or 12%.  However, the ABS figures show that all of the fall occurred between June 2014 and June 2015.  It’s debateable whether the data is correct, as the 2014 data doesn’t seem to fit, as it shows decline in other ewe, and an increase in Merino ewes, which is then reversed in 2015.

So Merino ewe number have declined, and it has largely been in the last 3 years.  Interestingly, ‘Other’ Ewe numbers haven’t actually risen to a great extent, at least in the last five years.  From 2011 to 2012 the other ewes flock had a huge rally, increasing 26%.  Since 2012 however, ABS reports that other ewes numbers have declined 14%, to take the increase from 2010 to 2015 to just 6%.

Despite the smaller Merino Ewe flock, the numbers of Merino lambs marked has risen since 2011, when this numbers was first reported (figure 2).  In 2014-15 the ABS reported 14.4 million Merino lambs were marked, up 3% on 2011, despite a flock which was 11% smaller.  This suggests that more of the Merinos which remain, are being joined back to Merinos.

With the other ewes, the number of lambs marked has fallen 9%, despite an 8% increase in the other ewe flock.  Again, this suggests that fewer ‘other’ lambs are being produced from Merino ewes.  However, the fact that 22% more other lambs were marked than merinos tells us that plenty of merino ewes are still being joined to terminal or maternal sires.

What does this mean?

While the official data does back up the anecdotal evidence to an extent, it hasn’t been the steady trend we expected to see.  Additionally, it is a bit surprising to see more Merino lambs being produced, and less other lambs. This suggests that those producers that have retained their merino flock are joining more back to merinos, and less to terminals or maternal sires.  This may have something to do with the emergence of more dual purpose merinos, where merino producers can have a bit each way in terms of wool and meat production.

The ABS numbers show the total breeding ewe numbers have fallen by 6% since 2010, while total lambs marked have fallen 4%.  This fits with more other ewes being in the flock, lifting the lambing percentage, and also shows that changes in types of lambs marked is due to a shift in Merino joining patterns.  

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