WELLINGTON, NZ – Although normal weather conditions returned this spring, New Zealand is facing its second-smallest lamb crop in 55 years. The number of lambs tailed this spring totaled 26.51 million, the Beef + Lamb New Zealand (B+LNZ) Economic Service's annual Lamb Crop Survey shows.

Although totaling 1.72 million more lambs than last season, the 2011 total represent the second-smallest crop since 1956. Poor numbers tallied last year were a direct result of adverse weather conditions hitting much of the country during the peak of lambing.

While this spring's lambing percentage represents a recovery from last year, other factors are at play, said Rob Davison, B+LNZ economic service director.

"The national average was 119 lambs born per 100 ewes, compared to 110 lambs per 100 ewes last year – a 9 percentage point lift,” he said. “Compared with last spring, this year's weather at peak lambing was vastly improved. However, offsetting the increased numbers of lambs born per 100 ewes was a 2.5 percent decrease in the size of the country's breeding ewe flock. This reflects the continuing expansion of the dairy herd and last season's strong mutton prices, which encouraged a higher than usual cull of poorer performing ewes."

The relatively small lamb crop will have flow-on effects for New Zealand's international trade, Davison said. "The number of prime lambs available for export this season is estimated to be 20.6 million,” he added. “While that's 1.3 million head more than last season, 2010-11 saw a 49-year low in the number of lambs processed, with this season shaping up to be the second lowest in 49 years."

Carcass weights are predicted to average 18kg (39.6 lbs.), down 1.4 percent compared with last season's record high of 18.23kg (40.1 lbs.) due to more lambs around to finish. Lamb production on a carcass weight basis increased 5.3 percent to 369,000 tonnes.

Early season payments to farmers for prime export lamb are strong, at around $8-$8.20 per kilogram, Davison said. Indications show these prices will ease back as the season progresses, he added.

The lamb crop is expected to generate $2.9 billion (US$2.2 billion) in export receipts – $100 million (US$75 million) more than 2010-11.