Good season may push up prices
By LYNETTE CAREW-REID
THE soaking rain in early April lifted spirits but has done little to lift sheep prices.
After suggestions that breeding ewe prices would hit $120-$150 a head when Australia's widespread drought broke, prices have not bolted but are retaining the steady buoyancy of the past couple of years.
The start has been good across a wide area of the state but it is now at the point where good follow up rains are needed and it will be in the next couple of weeks that sheep and cropping strategies will be put into to action.
The early break has given farmers time to think about and plan their programs and there is still time to opt for another paddock of crop because of the scarcity and high investment sheep represent.
With an extra paddock of crop an option at this point of the season, farmers have not pushed sheep prices to high levels, particularly after seeing the conservative $40-$50 values paid for breeding ewes by interstate buyers in March.
However, there is still a strong possibility farmers will still see the magical ton for maiden ewes this year but it won't be until the spring off-shears sales.
Then, it will be for a handful of the well-reputed annual sale-topping lines, and only if the season is showing a good long finish.
So far the year has started with promise.
Wesfarmers Landmark Esperance representative Michael Forward, who was at the Katanning saleyards recently, said the district went from seller to buyer overnight after the break and, for once, the whole region looked promising.
The Newdegate district has had a wetter start to the year than most with machinery bogged in paddocks.
Local Wesfarmers Landmark agent Ian Quartermaine says he has managed to buy sheep and at ruling prices.
At Boyup Brook, where the start has been patchier, Elders representative Peter Forrest says farmers are adhering to their normal sell-off patterns.
It is this attitude by farmers that gives respective Katanning stock firm representatives Clarke Skinner and Tom Bowen from Elders and Wesfarmers Landmark expectations of yarding good numbers of both wethers and ewes for the June special sheep sale next month.
Tom says both stock firms are starting to put together drafts for the sale and he is in no doubt that live exporters will be dictating the terms but it will be strongly underpinned by graziers.
With the bulk of state's Merino wether flock now traditionally sold at a young age exporters are struggling with the lack of mature sheep at this time of the year and with ewes either in lamb or with a lamb at foot export ewes are no easier to find.
An export spokesman said activity among exporters was quiet at the moment attributing it to the culmination of the normal quiet period after the Haj, a degree of reduced consumer spending in the Middle East as a result of the Iraq war and the general short supply of suitable sheep.
Mutton processors also are experiencing the normal autumn downturn in numbers and quality and have been competitive with exporters on heavy wethers, especially those carrying any length of jacket, and are also active on heavy lambs.
Prime lamb prices cracked the $100 barrier in the sale yards and for a fleeting time WAMMCO International paid $4.06/kilogram for contract lambs after prices reached a high of $4.50 in NSW but it appears the market has peaked and has now eased to just below $4 over the hooks.
WAMMCO International livestock group manager Peter Krupa says contract prices topped at $3.80 a kilogram last year and if necessary the co-operative will pay $4 for a short period but "it is not sustainable".
He said the abattoir was comfortable with number contracted in April and in mid-April they had 8000-10,000 crossbred lambs contracted for this month (May).
"That is not counting lambs from the Prime Merino Lamb Alliance but there may be a price spike in June before new season sucker lambs start".
He is hopeful if follow up rains are forthcoming the early break may get the spring lamb season off to an early start.
At Katanning saleyards three consecutive 11,000-head yardings in the past three weeks were the smallest chief drafting contractor Rod Bushell had seen in 10 years with the one-off exception of the short week preceding Easter in 2002.
After putting through more than a million sheep through the yards for the past five years farmers ceased their sell-off last year when numbers fell by almost 140,000 to 911,000 head.
This year 762,000 have passed through the yards to March 31.
Stock agents were looking to this week's Midland sale for a true picture of the sheep supply situation.
After two short selling weeks when small numbers were yarded the centre returned to its normal two-day sale.
Continuing dry weather conditions has also contributed to a bigger Midland yarding this week but agents are nervous that, despite farmers' usual seasonal selling pattern, sheep numbers are greatly reduced throughout the state and the lack of supply will take effect.