16 February 2001


Should the global lamb trade

become more open,

Australia and New Zealand

are ideally placed to take

advantage. British producers

cannot afford to become

complacent, believes

one Nuffield scholar.

Marianne Curtis reports

RECENT BSE scares on the continent have brought a welcome turnaround in fortunes for beleaguered UK sheep producers. But their Australian and New Zealand counterparts, able to produce lamb at a fraction of UK costs, have their eyes firmly on European markets.

Australian lamb can be produced for 90p/kg deadweight and shipped to Europe for 10p/kg, says National Sheep Association commercial manager Chris Lloyd who visited countries including Aust-ralia and New Zealand as part of his recent Nuffield scholarship.

"The incentive for my study came from the challenge facing UK sheep farmers from countries in the world seeking to liberalise the trade of agricultural products through the World Trade Organ-isation."

New Zealand and Australia would like to see removal of European import quotas for sheep meat, which limit New Zealand to 225,000t and Australia to 18,650t, and the removal of production-related support payments.

Fall in number

In New Zealand, government support payments virtually disappeared overnight in 1985. This led to a dramatic fall in sheep numbers from 75m in 1985 to 45m today, according to Mr Lloyd.

"Producers put their cheque books away and stopped spending. The changes brought heartache to rural areas and whole villages closed. Banks and Post Offices in these communities look exactly the same as the day they shut down."

But the New Zealand sheep industry survived, albeit in a leaner and meaner form, he says. "Share partnerships and larger units became more common and numbers of sheep kept/person increased."

In intensive flocks one person can be responsible for 1500 sheep, although 2000-3000 sheep/person is not un-common. Large flock sizes facilitate rigorous culling which makes for less troublesome sheep, says Mr Lloyd.

"For British flocks with only 300 sheep, such a hard culling policy wouldnt be possible. However, in New Zealand, any sheep with foot problems or lambing difficulties is culled."

Romney is the traditional New Zealand breed but a typical prolificacy of 100%-110% and carcass weight of 14-15.5kg have focused producers minds on improving performance.

Breed improvement means some Romney flocks are now achieving a lambing percentage of 140%-145%. The recent introduction of Friesland ewes has also provided a fast track option to bigger litters. "But a balance must be struck as too many lambs are difficult to manage in a low labour system with ewes lambing outside."

Outdoor, grazing-based systems form the bedrock of New Zealand sheep production so improving forage use is a major objective for progressive producers. "New Zealand enjoys warm, wet conditions ideal for grass growth, but economics have led to reduced fertiliser use and tighter stocking levels," says Mr Lloyd.

"One semi-upland producer explained that his average field size was 15ha and that he wanted to reduce it to 8ha." There were 200-300 ewes grazing these paddocks which were moved on within two days, he adds.

Common practice

Measuring grass height, how many sheep a paddock will support and quantifying the amount of forage required for maintenance, pregnancy and lactation is common in New Zealand, says Mr Lloyd.

"Most UK sheep producers wouldnt measure grass heights. Economics have forced New Zealand producers to use every input efficiently."

As well as producers, abattoirs have also adapted to harsher trading conditions. "New Zealand lamb is exported to more than 100 countries. A carcass may be split into cuts and sold to several countries based on each items best market."

Developments in chilling technology means that exported New Zealand lamb is no longer perceived as frozen, so can compete with local product. "Our meat industry has learned from New Zealand and will continue to learn. We must be open to ideas as it still has much to teach us."


&#8226 Improve grassland use.

&#8226 Explore alternative markets.

&#8226 Dont become complacent.

See more