NEW Zealand’s beef cattle herd increased by 1.9 per cent over the past year while the decline in the sheep flock was slowed by a lift in hoggets as farmers responded to strong prices and good grass growth leading into winter.
The annual survey by the Beef + Lamb New Zealand Economic Service shows 3.68 million beef cattle with beef production continuing to grow.
Total sheep numbers fell 0.8 per cent to 27.31 million head. This was due to a decrease in breeding ewes for all regions, moderated by a lift in total hogget numbers.
Chief Economist Andrew Burtt says the analysis reveals a younger ewe flock as farmers retain more hoggets for future production. The number of breeding ewes fell in all regions of New Zealand – and by 2.1 per cent overall to 17.37 million.
Each one percentage point change in breeding ewe lambing percentage is equivalent to about 174,000 lambs.
“The number of breeding ewes decreased 3.5 per cent to 8.3 million in the North Island, while South Island numbers dropped 0.8 per cent to 9.0 million,” Burtt says.
The decrease largely reflects farmers taking advantage of strong prices for mutton.
“There was also a preference – particularly in the older farmer demographic – towards less labour intensive livestock options to sheep,” Burtt says.
Consequently, the national hogget flock increased 2.5 per cent to 9.1 million.
Burtt says early pregnancy scanning of ewes fell short of farmer expectations and the lamb crop is expected to be down 3.8 per cent or 900,000 head, to 22.8 million.
Strong prices for sheep and beef prevailed throughout the season, while low wool prices and anecdotal comments of a potential lift in the price of shearing remains a concern for farmers.
Strong mutton prices encouraged deeper culling of older ewes, while strong lamb prices encouraged farmers to retain more trade lambs for weight gains, with more ewe lambs being retained to compensate for culled breeding ewes.
Overall, beef breeding cow numbers decreased 0.9 per cent to 970,000 head, but calving percentages are expected to be the similar to, or slightly up on, the previous year for most regions.
Good returns for beef have also encouraged farmers in some regions to replace sheep with cattle.