WELLINGTON, N.Z. – Signals suggest New Zealand’s sheep flock is stabilizing following three consecutive years of dramatic decline, according to Beef + Lamb New Zealand’s (B+LNZ) Economic Service. A 2.5% increase in total sheep numbers to 33.20 million head posted on June 30 has been driven by the retention of hoggets, up 10.4% on the previous year on both breeding and finishing farms.

While rebuilding of the flock slowly takes place following the droughts in recent years, the ewe flock is still 16.6% lower than five years ago.

The annual stock number survey, which establishes the productive base of livestock for 2010-11, shows sheep numbers increased by 3.3% (+0.53 million) in the North Island and 1.8% (+0.29 million) in the South Island, said Rob Davison, B+LNZ Economic Service executive director.

“The increase in total sheep numbers is driven mainly by the retention of hoggets,” he iterated. “Fewer hoggets were kept in previous years as farmers sold off ewe hoggets for cashflow. Also, farmers are expecting good returns for store two-tooths in the coming season, based on strong ewe prices last summer.”

Early indications suggest this spring’s total lamb crop will be back on last year’s by around 0.71 million lambs (-2.5%), Davison said.

“This decrease will come from a slight drop in breeding ewes (-0.6%) to 22 million, with North Island numbers down 1.2% and South Island numbers remaining static,” he added. “There will also be fewer lambs born per 100 ewes due to scanning results back 5-10 percentage points and poorer ewe condition heading into lambing likely to affect lamb survival. However, as always, the final judge for the actual lamb crop will be the weather this spring.

“With this year’s lamb crop likely to be back on last year’s, it is expected that the number of lambs to be available for export will be around 21.4 million, similar to the export year just ending,” he continued.

Beef cattle numbers posted on June 30 decreased 4.3% to 3.92 million. North Island numbers decreased 3.7% and South Island numbers 5.9%. The major decrease occurred amongst finishing cattle from the tight feed supplies for cattle in many regions and a switch back toward lamb finishing which has become more profitable over the last two seasons. Beef breeding cows increased 3.7% to 1.14 million as some rebuilding of the beef herd takes place on the hill country.