THERE are serious concerns about the sustainability of Australia's sheep flock, once the staple industry of this nation.
Numbers of slaughter lambs and sheep, for export, have risen each year until they are at the point when flocks are not sustainable, according to peak industry body Meat & Livestock Australia (MLA).
MLA has forecast lamb slaughter rates will match last year's and continue to rise until Australia is exporting 250,000t of lamb in 2019.
MLA manager of market information Ben Thomas said the weaker Australian dollar helped drive export growth.
"Lamb turn-off has never been higher in Australia which indicates lamb marking rates have improved considerably in recent years," he said.
"After the first six months of the year, exports are up four per cent on last year's record, but this volume is also 31pc above the five-year average and 42pc above the 10-year average."
About 64pc of exports are into the United States, China and the Middle East.
But the pressures of drought, wild dog predation and animal health and welfare, coupled with export and domestic demand, has raised concerns about reduced flock numbers.
MLA forecasts the number of sheep will gradually rebuild out to 73.8 million head in 2019. This is still nearly 100 million sheep less than in 1990.
According to the Sheep CRC, the size of the Australian sheep flock has fallen from 170 million in 1990 to about 70 million today.
In 2009, MLA and the Sheep CRC led a study that concluded there needed to be significant reduction in the number of mature animals (particularly ewes) being slaughtered and sold for live export and an increase in reproductive efficiency.
At that time it was recognised strong demand for lamb and high prices for mutton and sheep for the live export trade meant current levels of turnoff were not sustainable.
An increased proportion of Merino ewes were joined to terminal sires and the combined effect of the declining flock size and the changing structure away from wool-producing Merinos had significantly reduced wool production.
According to data from the Sheep CRC, most of the decrease in wool supply has been in the mid-micron wools (21-23M), while the supply of fine and superfine wool has been relatively stable.
MLA, Sheep CRC and Australian Wool Innovation (AWI) are key partners in projects aimed at increasing flock fertility and lamb survival.
Projects like Bred Well Fed Well and Making More From Sheep are driven by a need to populate Australian flocks.
Pigeon Ponds sheep farmer Tim Leeming runs a Coopworth-composite flock on 1350 hectares in southwestern Victoria.
Improving infrastructure and sheep handling facilities and reducing labour and subsequent costs were important goals he developed by participating in the Making More From Sheep program.
"A big benefit from fencing our land classes was lamb survival," Mr Leeming said.
He scans to separate ewes into mobs according to whether they are expecting single or multiple lambs and feeds them accordingly.
"We get better weaning results and fencing is the only way we can achieve that," Mr Leeming said.
His goal is 12,000 dry sheep equivalent per labour unit.
AWI also continues to invest in community partnerships to combat wild dog predation, which has impacted, in particular, sheep flocks across Australia.
The focus is on whole-of-landscape and government departments working with farmers, rather than each group in isolation.
In Victoria, farmers in East Gippsland and Hume reduced sheep flock numbers as a result of wild dog predation and those still in the industry joined community baiting and trapping programs.
Many invested in electric fencing to keep out wild dogs.
"Running sheep in East Gippsland means we suffer the consequences," said Bindi farmer, Simon Turner.
"There's thousands of dogs out there and we're feeling that because they're coming in to kill our livestock."
He said using exclusion fencing as a barrier against the wild dogs, combined with trapping, shooting and baiting, were measures helping to protect sheep flocks.
"We didn't sleep," said Bindi's Fraser Barry.
Fraser and Penny Barry spent every day and night thinking about wild dogs and how to combat them.
"We had to change how we thought about the issue – it's a community problem and it does need to be shared," said Mrs Barry.
"Last year we lost no sheep to dogs. This year we got a wild dog inside the fence and lost 40 sheep until we could deal with the dog," Mr Barry said.
"We actually sleep at night now."
Ian Junor, Hinnomunjie, was another sheep farmer who spent every day and night for years thinking about and dealing with wild dogs.
Last week, he told Stock & Land he felt the numbers were under control at the moment which meant he was sleeping at night.
"It's better and I'm able to sleep at night, so the efforts of the last few years must be paying off," he said.
"But, I'm not relaxing because they're still out there and it won't take much to build up their numbers again."