WHILE sheep producers are cashing in on the demand for quality wool, lamb, mutton and export wethers, does the industry have the expertise to increase WA flock numbers and improve profitability?
Agrarian Management consultant Ashley Herbert said a decline in experienced professional sheep expertise since the 1990s was a “potential constraint” to the WA industry increasing its flock numbers.
Mr Herbert said the consequence of nearly two generations of farmers thinking that sheep were not profitable has been a reduction in professional animal husbandry and sheep enterprise skills.
He said there was only a handful of consultants in the State with specialist expertise at the “professional level” able to assist farmers in analysing their sheep enterprises to improve profitability – compared to the many agronomists available to assist broadacre farmers.
Mr Herbert said “any appreciable growth” in the WA sheep industry would most likely be through existing producers increasing stock numbers, rather than new entrants into the industry.
He said if producers were shown what was possible, how to achieve it and how to manage the risks along the way, they would have the ability and confidence to work towards their goal.
“If there is money to be made farmers will change,” Mr Herbert said.
“But they need people to get advice from and to help them through the decision-making process.”
He suggested that Australian Wool Innovation (AWI) and Meat and Livestock Australia (MLA) should look at investing funds into upskilling individuals to ensure that there were consultants who could help producers.
“The number of professional specialist sheep consultants is low and so it is easy for sheep to not be considered as a front running enterprise,” he said.
“There are a lot of younger people in agriculture (professionals and farmers) who have effectively grown up being told that sheep are not profitable.
“Understandably, this has created a bias towards cropping when making decisions on enterprise mix.
“People are starting to look at adjusting their enterprise mix but it will take a while for confidence to be restored.
“Because of the way it has been over the past 20-odd years it will take time to bring about the significant change.
“What we find is that farmers often have the capacity to run more sheep but are wary of running too many.
“With the profitability of sheep being at a historical high, the opportunity cost of being understocked is potentially significant.”
Mr Herbert said access to professional assistance greatly improved the success of any planned increase in stock numbers.
Pastoralists and Graziers Association western beef and sheep producers chairman Chris Patmore said as a sheep producer he thought the existing expertise available to producers through private consultants, and also through grower-funded bodies such as AWI and MLA, were not being utilised as well as they could.
“I think what we have already is under-utilised,” Mr Patmore said.
“There’s plenty of consultants available for the demand that’s there – and if there’s not many there it’s because people haven’t been using them.
“There’s plenty of resources to access – maybe not in every town but in the major towns.”
Mr Patmore was optimistic the high prices for wool and sheep meat could result in a change of mindset among WA producers and also attract younger farmers to sheep production.
WAFarmers past president Mike Norton said there was “more than enough expertise available to producers – particularly through DPIRD and MLA”.
“The only way to drive sheep production is dollars – when the price is high people will go to it,” Mr Norton said.
He said by getting the wild dog situation under control pastoralists would be more confident to run sheep again, which would also see a boost in the production numbers in the State.
Department of Primary Industry and Regional Development (DPIRD) sheep industry development director and Sheep Industry Business Innovation project manager Bruce Mullan said a lot had changed in the past 20 years.
“We could always use more expertise in the sheep industry but things are different to the old days,” Dr Mullan said.
“In terms of access to information people use the internet and social media, which has been a major change across all of agriculture.
“The department of agriculture was the place to go in the past, but now certainly universities deal with farmers directly, as well as grower groups and consultants.
“There’s different players in the field than what there was 10-20 years ago.”
Dr Mullan said many graduates were heading into agronomy because they could do a degree and head straight into a job – instead of furthering their studies and specialising more.
“When I talk to universities in general, students are keen to get out and get a job instead of going on to a masters or a PhD,” he said.
“It’s hard to get students to look at alternatives – it’s very competitive.”
Dr Mullan said AWI and universities had found the same thing.
“There is a need for young people to come into the industry,” he said.
“If you look at the demographics there’s quite a gap.
“We need a continuous supply coming through.”
Dr Mullan said while there was need for more expertise in the sheep industry, there were a few things happening to make up for the shortfall.
“We are using the resources we have got – we can’t be everything to everyone – but there are certain groups that have expertise and so we want to harness that and work together,” he said.
“The benefit is that we share ideas and innovation comes out of that.”
According to DPIRD’s WA Agrifood, Fibre, Fisheries and Forestry Industries booklet – there are about 4500 sheep producers in WA running a total flock of 13.9 million head, as of 2016.
The gross value of production for sheep disposals (slaughter and live export) was $513m in 2015/16.
Fifty two per cent of the WA flock was made up of breeding ewes – with 82pc of that population being Merino – reflecting the importance of the wool industry in WA.
In 2015/16 WA produced 20pc of the national wool clip at 65.2 million kilograms greasy – to a value of $661m, with the majority exported to a value of $477m.
The price for WA wool has been record breaking for weeks on end and everyone in the industry is hoping it continues.