The challenge for sheep farming in New Zealand has been maintaining profitability in the face of lower returns from wool. Many farmers have opted out over the past 30 years because of lack of profitability; hence sheep numbers dropping from 58 million in 1990 to around 27m now.

Lambing percentages and meat production have risen in that time while wool production per head has remained static.

I recently read an article from 1894, republished by NZ Sheepbreeders Association, saying the English were historically beef eaters rather than mutton eaters. Mutton came into common diets only because of some improved breeding in the 19th century, prior to which sheep were farmed for wool and manure production.

The analogy is that NZ farmers have also changed production emphasis for our sheep, especially over the past 30 years.

If you are reluctant to farm sheep with no wool income then how do you subsidise the loss from other income streams? Can you offset the loss from wool production by increasing other income streams? Sheep have been bred to produce meat, wool and milk. Increasing meat production to subsidise the wool share of the sheep has been happening steadily on NZ sheep farms. The 2018/19 statistics show an average of 133% lambing, producing 19.1kg lamb carcases and 21kg of lamb per ewe bred. The very top end of sheep farmers are doing close to 200% lambing and growing over 36kg lamb carcase per ewe bred, which returns double the average gross income – $3.

Lambing percentage

The number of eggs a female mammal can ovulate during her lifetime is set before she is born, depending on genetics and nutrition of the mother, so potential lambing performance starts from mating. How you feed the pregnant ewe has a lifetime impact on her daughters, as does the genetics of the ewes and the sire.

We aim to get a high level of fertilisation, and then get lambs through to weaning successfully to achieve a high lambing percentage. English sheep farmers lamb their ewes in sheds to maximise the results; some farmers here rear lambs off the mothers to get similar improvements. The base principle is that animals are fed better and given a better environment for survival, especially at critical times in their lives.

Also, a base principle is an emphasis on per head rather than per hectare production. That is an economic balancing act but the push for per hectare performance is inclined to get you overstocked, which lowers per head performance when the environment is less than desirable. How resilient is your sheep system in the face of climate change?

Over the past 30 years sheep production per head has lifted as sheep numbers have dropped and stocking rates have eased. At the same time there has been a lift in cattle numbers on many sheep farms, which has given some complementary benefits. You have altered your farm management; you can and will alter it more to chase profitability.

Lambing percentage is about feeding.

Lamb growth

I say to my clients that lambing percentage is about lamb growth, meaning that if you maximise lamb growth you will have more feed for mating time because you have fewer lambs around to compete with the breeders. The result is improved lambing percentages on a regular basis.

Average lamb carcaseweight in NZ is about 19kg at an average slaughter age of about 220 days.

If we assume an average dressing percentage of 44% that means an average liveweight at kill of 44kg. Assuming 3kg average birthweight then the typical lamb has grown at 186g/day from birth to slaughter. We know lambs grow better before weaning because they are getting mother’s milk and spring grass, so we can extrapolate the figures further to a pre-weaning period of 100 days growing at 250g/day followed by 120 days growth at 133g/day.

The top end of lambs are growing at 500g/day pre-weaning and 300g/day post-weaning. That level of growth puts them at slaughter weight near weaning or not long after. That is so much better than the industry average that we wonder what happens on the average farm, let alone the below average.

The economic impact of improved lamb growth is supported by every feed budget ever done. A lamb growing at the average rate takes another 80-100kg drymatter (DM) because of the longer feeding period. At, say, 18c/kg DM the slower-growing lamb costs another $15/head to get to slaughter. Over an average of 2000 lambs that is $30,000 that could have been profit. On the average NZ sheep farm that could be a 15% increase in profit – a rather handy result.

There is a genetic component to lamb growth, but again it is largely about feeding.

If you can get more lambs and grow them faster, then the loss on wool production can be offset to some extent.

Sheep by-products

About 8% of the export value from animals processed in NZ is classed as byproducts, being offal of varying descriptions along with fat, bone, blood and pharmaceutical products. Skins and slipe wool are other products, but currently neither add much value to your lamb or mutton.

The utilisation and export of byproducts has been steadily increasing as processors develop new markets and aim to minimise waste. That makes sense since meat makes less than half the animal’s weight at slaughter. Currently these byproducts are more valuable and profitable than the wool your sheep grow.

As farmers we cannot produce sheep with more blood etc, but in future we may breed sheep for specific byproduct purposes. Note that “Dolly” the cloned sheep was bred in 1996 to produce a certain milk constituent, not just to demonstrate the ability to clone the animal.

Improved wool income

In the early 20th century NZ sheep farming developed a “crossbred” sheep that was suitable for much of the country. Based on a Romney, it has been altered over time but it produces a coarser micron fleece that was well suited to carpets and coarser textiles. Market demand for that fibre has reduced, leading to the low prices for your wool.

We can continue to grow that style of wool and take what is being offered, or we can produce a different style of fibre to meet existing markets or develop new ones. That is the thrust behind the new “Astino” sheep breed, producing wool aimed at air filter production. Similarly, the lustrous, dark fibre of the Gotland Pelt might have a niche market appeal. Crossbred wool covering on tennis balls has also been promoted. The future might be to join the lifestyle of breeding Valais Blacknose.

You need to consider whether to invest in future wool production, and then consider what level of investment whether on or off-farm.

Reducing wool costs

Many sheep farmers around the world shear their own sheep. In NZ we have developed larger flocks and a skilled, specialised workforce to harvest the wool. Maybe you have to develop the skills and time to shear your own sheep in order to make sense of wool production. If you are paying $2.50/kg or more to harvest the wool, then shearing becomes a necessary chore for some sheep farmers.

Shearing and crutching less frequently may be one way to reduce costs. The development of crutching trailers has provided a lower-cost cleanup job than dragging all the flock across the board. Robotic shearing has been looked at but not perfected; if robots can milk cows then they have advanced enough to shear sheep.

Part of the issue of shearing is whether to process the wool – if the sheep is shorn and the wool not processed then costs can be reduced considerably, for example, Bioclip. Note that wool has some fertiliser value since it is a protein containing about 15% nitrogen and 5% sulphur. It will break down naturally but that might be sped up by composting or pelletising – surely the Green Party would approve of that!

Sheep milking

Sheep milk production is being promoted as a growing industry with a great future, and on figures it could displace sheep (and cattle?) from many areas. The limiting factors at present are suitable sheep, processing infrastructure and willingness to invest. A scan of the internet shows potential income of up to $1000/ewe/year, which rates fairly well against the average cow at $2600/year. Given that level of income, the wool production is strictly an animal health issue with meat being secondary.

The average sheep flock in NZ runs about 2000 breeding ewes. To integrate a medium-scale sheep milking platform into that is technically possible, maybe milking 500 ewes for four months to generate about $400/ewe income. The figure of $3/litre has been publicised recently, and dual purpose ewes might average just over one litre/day for prolonged milking, depending on feed and management. That means an additional $200,000 of income to a sheep enterprise that has a total income of around $300,000. It would require investment in infrastructure and labour along with a change in management emphasis, but an integrated system would continue to produce meat and wool. Access to processing facilities would be a limitation but it may be a better future than more pine trees or larger dairy farms.

Crossbred sheep farming continues to decline in NZ as wool prices drop in real terms. You might subsidise wool production by improving lambing percentage and lamb growth rates, thus increasing meat production. Or you might breed a sheep for other purposes such as specialised byproducts or wool or milk. If you don’t want to change your farming trajectory then it might be a good time to have a heart-to-heart with your shareholders and financiers, because they might not be so happy with your plan.