SHEEP transfer figures to the Eastern States are entering new territory after the record 1.5 million head mark was reached at the end of October, with the monthly figure the second highest number of sheep transferred since October 2010.
The Department of Primary Industries and Regional Development's (DPIRD) latest interstate sheep transfer figures show a total of 315,100 sheep and lambs went east last month, slightly down on October 2010, when 388,000 sheep headed east, due to severe dry seasonal conditions in Western Australia.
The yearly total from January-October, of 1.5m, was made up of 54 per cent lambs and 46pc adult sheep.
Of last month's total transfer figures, 209,100 were lambs and 106,000 were adult sheep.
In September, 105,600 sheep and lambs left WA - where lambs made up 51pc, while adult sheep made up 49pc.
This was a huge jump from July and August which saw 49,000 and 41,000 respectively.
DPIRD livestock director Bruce Mullan said an increase in turnoff to the east in October was typical, due to the spring flush and increased lamb turnoff, but the amount this year has been significant.
"The Eastern States' interest is driven by processor demand and producers restocking after the drought, which has been boosted in recent weeks by continued rainfall," Dr Mullan said.
"The situation has been compounded by a mediocre winter in parts of WA, reducing runoff for dams - leading to the possibility of tight water supplies during the coming summer, further encouraging producers to reduce stock numbers.
"WA sheep producers are urged to consider the impact of their flock selling strategies on the long-term profitability and viability of their enterprise and the industry."
DPIRD's 'Implications of management decisions on the WA sheep flock in response to changing markets' 2019 report, found the class - rather than the number - of sheep transferred east had a larger impact on the future volume of sheep meat and wool produced.
Dr Mullan said scenario modelling found when a greater proportion of ewes to lambs were transferred east, the size of the WA sheep flock declined over a 10-year period, which could place pressure on the industry's ability to supply meat and wool customers.
"The challenge for producers is to maintain current business viability, while at the same time retaining enough breeding ewes to ensure continued turnoff and future flock profitability," he said.
Dr Mullan said DPIRD's Sheep Flock Composition Calculator could assist producers to compare selling scenarios and model the consequences of selling or retaining different age classes of ewes over six years.
"Tight water and feed availability will be a key consideration to maintaining flock numbers, alongside demands on time and labour from broadacre cropping and livestock commitments," he said.
"The department's 'Breeding Ewes are Worth Feeding' report by respected analyst John Young concludes that it is profitable to supplementary feed breeding ewes.
"This report demonstrates how important it is to make the right selling and retaining decisions and to use tools to develop profitable flock management strategies."
Bruce Rock sheep breeder Phil Jones said a lot of his clients had sold sheep into the Eastern States - mainly due to the lack of water on farm and the good prices on offer.
"They were getting pretty good money from graziers in the east - about $200 per head," Mr Jones said.
They were mainly cull hoggets and some first draft lambs.
Mr Jones said the lack of pastures on farms in the region meant that one less sheep on the farm was one less to feed.
"All our dams are empty, it's lucky we are on scheme," he said.
Mr Jones said between 25-30mm of rain fell over two days last week but the ground was so dry it absorbed it all and he had no run-off rain to fill the dams.
One of his long-time clients Nick Spark, Bonnie Rock, said he sold a mob of blue tag rising five-year-old Merino ewes last week for $150 per head to thin out his flock a bit.
Mr Spark runs about 6000 ewes and is "working on going into the new year with 5000 mated".
The livestock he is selling are part of his normal sell-off at this time of year.
"We could hang on to them and feed them up a bit but it is an opportunity to get reasonable prices," Mr Spark said.
He said in total he would be selling 2200 head of wether lambs and cull ewe lambs in the next few weeks - all to the east.
"One of the biggest hand brakes at the moment is the lack of trucks, they are hard to get," Mr Spark said.
He said he would bring them into the feedlot and keep them on pellets until the trucks arrived.
Mr Spark said he didn't receive enough winter rain but he was "getting too much now" with about 40mm falling over the past week.
He said the water level in two thirds of his dams was still fairly low, while one third was near full.
"We are trying to harvest at the moment and the rain has put a stop to that," Mr Spark said.
"It would have been majorly beneficial six to eight weeks ago."
He replaced his ewes with "larger framed ewes from another local producer" to produce some terminal cross lambs.
The high number transferred east this year has got some people in the industry concerned about the possibility of a declining flock (from 14.3 million head a few years ago to about 12 million).
While there have been regular dispersals advertised, where producers were either leaving the industry or destocking to take a load off due to the lack of water and available feed on farm, there were positive signs ahead for those who were committed to the industry, according to livestock agents and WA farm lobby groups.
Pastoralists and Graziers Association of WA (PGA) livestock committee chairman Chris Patmore said demand from the Eastern States was "still going flat out".
"It's being limited by the number of trucks available at the moment," Mr Patmore said.
"People have been waiting up to 12 days to get a truck.
"There's a shortage of trucks right across Australia."
Mr Patmore knows first-hand as he recently sold 900 first cross Merino breeding ewes for $270 per head to an Eastern States' buyer.
"It was about $100 better than I would have got at the processors," he said.
"I also sold some to a local buyer for $290/head."
Mr Patmore said local demand was up as lambs were selling well because "local guys have to meet the prices on offer from the Eastern States".
"It's good for producers," he said.
"It's sad that they have to go east but you sell to the highest prices.
"That's the market at work - you just have to go with it."
Mr Patore said the sheep flock was declining by numbers going east but said they would have been slaughtered in WA if not.
"A lot are just annual turn-off this time of year," he said.
"Then there's those who have had to sell because of water shortages.
"Producers are also selling quite a few through lot dispersals - there's about two to three every week.
"It's disappointing for the industry but there's competition for land use.
"Feed and water management affects it too and there's a focus on cropping because livestock can demand extra work and people are limited by labour.
"I've seen it before, large numbers going to the east, and it's nothing to be alarmed about.
"It all depends on feed availability in the east.
"While it rains in northern Victoria and New South Wales it will continue but that can change from flood to famine and that could affect things."
Mr Patmore said there were "quite a few people sitting on wool at the moment" waiting for the right time to sell, hoping that prices will come back.
"The sheep market is very positive and it is good to have the competition," Mr Patmore said.
Nutrien Ag Solutions State livestock manager Leon Giglia said the interest in the Eastern States had always been there over the years, but "it's only been highlighted and numbers (going east are) so high due to restocker demand in New South Wales".
"There's always been top end ewes and regular repeat buyers from NSW - there has been for a number of years," Mr Giglia said.
"We are always selling lambs to the east.
"Maybe it's been highlighted, but our market has never been to the same level as the Eastern States.
"The WA sheep flock is on decline and there's a number of reasons for that - the wool market, the water issue and not very clear strong signals from processors for forward pricing.
"Those components are factors but they present opportunities.
"While the market is at this level, it is hard for people to consider running a sheep enterprise.
"It's on decline - what does that mean?
"People will adjust their sheep enterprises to take in different market options.
"Some enterprises are selling up - but at the Narrogin ewe and lamb sale recently there was good competition and purchasing by locals amongst east coast graziers.
"And we may not have moved as many rams this year compared with last year, but we still moved good numbers of meat breeds and Merinos.
"It would be interesting to see the number of slaughter stock that went across compared with breeder stock.
"It's the biggest sell-off since 2010, when they got a taste of our product and have been repeat buying."
Mr Giglia said it would "take some time to rebuild" the flock back to where it was, but in the immediate future "our total livestock numbers are going to be tight until spring is under the belt".
"We'll continue to see strong pricing," he said.
"This all presents a pretty good picture for the sheep industry in WA.
"Those that have decided to stay in the industry have been rewarded."
Mr Giglia said sheep producers were investing in it "right across the board from sheep handling equipment to genetics" and it was "a positive for all those involved in the industry".
"The future is suggesting positive returns as the world demand is continuing," he said.