WELLINGTON, N.Z. — Drought and dairy expansion have continued to reduce sheep numbers, resulting in a 2.8% drop in total sheep numbers, to 33.14 million for the year to June 30, according to Meat & Wool New Zealand’s Economic Service. This comes on the heels of an 11.4% decrease in sheep numbers the previous year.

Rob Davison, Economic Service executive director, said its annual stock number survey, which establishes the productive base of livestock for 2009-10, shows North Island sheep numbers decreased by 5.9% (-1.0 million) while numbers remained almost static (+0.3%) in the South Island.

"In the North Island, three consecutive years of drought in the East Coast regions has caused successive reductions in sheep numbers. In addition, drought in the summer and autumn of 2008, coupled with dairy herd expansion, resulted in significantly fewer lambs in 2008-09 [-12%] than in the previous year," he said. "The flow-on effect was fewer lambs for export and fewer lambs to keep as replacements at June 30, 2009. Farmers’ need for cash flow and improved lamb prices compared with the last three years, particularly in the latter part of 2008-09, prompted more lambs to be drafted for export instead of being kept as replacements."

Breeding ewe numbers dropped 3.4% to 22.7 million, with North Island numbers down 2.9% and South Island numbers down 3.8%, Mr. Davison said.

"The total number of hoggets or young sheep was almost static, but there was a major difference between islands," he added. "North Island hogget numbers were down 12.2%, but South Island numbers were up 15.8%. The South Island increase is measured against very low hogget retentions in the previous year. Some of this increase is likely to be lambs held over for slaughter in late winter."

Early indications suggest this spring’s total lamb crop will be ahead of last year’s by around 0.50 million lambs (+2%), Mr. Davison said.

"This increase will mainly come from more lambs born per 100 ewes and will more than offset the 3.4% decrease in breeding ewe numbers," he added. "However, the final arbiter for the actual lamb crop will be the weather this spring.

"Although this year’s lamb crop is likely to be ahead of last year’s, we expect the number of lambs to be available for export will be down 2%," he continued. "This is because farmers in regions previously affected by drought will need to retain more lambs than last year as replacements to rebuild sheep numbers."

Beef cattle numbers decreased 1.7% to 4.07 million, with a 1.9% decrease in the North Island and a 1.2% decrease in the South Island.