Continued dry conditions across much of the country, coupled with recent heat waves, are believed to have delivered another blow to some sheep producers – critically low pregnancy rates.
Central and northern NSW and southern Queensland appear to be faring the worst with conception rates of zero being recorded.
Nathan Harris of Livestock Scanning Service, Baradine, NSW, said the results had been nothing less than devastating.
He has clients from central west NSW to south west Queensland and said conception rates were down across the board.
“There are so many contributing factors, I really don’t think you can put your finger on one thing that is causing it,” Mr Harris said.
“I’ve had many clients feeding at different nutrition rates, different breeds of sheep and different areas of the country and basically all come up with the same results.”
He said September joinings, followed by December scanning, were nothing less than ordinary.
Scanning 2000 ewes to get 100 lambs. It’s just devastating.
“My highest recording averaged about 60pc and low was zero,” he said.
“I’ve had blokes pull me up during scanning because they weren’t getting enough lambs. Scanning 2000 ewes to get 100 lambs. It’s just devastating.
“The effect on the industry is widespread, even my numbers are down by 20 to 30pc. That will only get worse because there are people that won’t join again.”
One common denominator, Mr Harris said, was double joinings.
Ewes that were typically joined at spring, particularly Merinos, were at the top of the scale, but the vast majority of ewes that have been double joined (where they have lost a lamb or not raised a lamb in the winter) have not conceived again.
He said it had now got to the point where producers had said they could afford to feed a dry ewe, but they certainly can’t afford to feed a pregnant ewe.
Andrew Scott, Coolac, NSW, scans about 350,000 sheep in an area stretching from Bigga to Tarcutta and Cooma and said the true impact of the high temperatures wouldn't be known for another couple of weeks.
“But so far, the ones that have suffered the most are the young sheep, with some conception rates as low as 30 per cent,” Mr Scott said.
“What older sheep we have done they have been down, but not drastically, probably 10 to 15pc less than last year.
“That’s really not too bad considering the conditions they have been through.”
Poor nutrition, he said, would be the major factor in the young ewes likelihood of conceiving.
Providing the industry with some much needed confidence are the results from Cousins Merino Services in Burra, SA, who scan across that state as well as parts of Vic and NSW.
Michelle Cousins said they were currently scanning in the south east of SA.
“So far they have had a very good season. Obviously it is variable as to where they are, but most are returning 130 to 150pc,” Mrs Cousins said.
“In the mid north of the state, where the season hasn’t fared as well, the rates aren’t quite as good, but they are still getting around 120 to 130pc. But you would normally expect them to do better.
“The ones that haven’t been able to maintain their condition score has obviously been reflected in their scanning rates.”
On the west coast she said rates of 130 to 140pc were being reported. Drought affected areas in the state haven’t begun scanning yet, but she said expectations won’t be as high.
“Although rates have been good across the board, I would expect these numbers to drop off going forward,” she said.
“Early scanners have done well with their percentages, but they have had an exceptional year where everyone else hasn’t.”
Awareness from producers when the heatwave hit in January saw them extend their joining period.
“We had a lot of clients ring up to let us know they left their rams in a bit longer to cover that period where they probably weren’t working or the ewes weren’t cycling,” Mrs Cousins said.
“It makes it very hard to accurately scan for twins when they have had an extended joining, but we will re-scan the drys to pick up anything we may have missed earlier on.
“There are management strategies to deal with something like a heatwave, it is good to see that farmers know that hot weather is going to affect both the ewe and the ram so they are leaving them in that bit longer to extend that joining.”
With Australia’s breeding flock already in decline to 65.3 million head and widespread rainfall discrepancies, fewer joinings were already anticipated in 2019.
These scanning results will mean an even bigger fall in national flock numbers.