Drought impact tipped to be worst in six decades as sheep numbers tumble


But the livestock sector is facing the toughest recovery once the drought breaks.

ABARES is forecasting the national flock to fall to 64.9 million as farmers, without access to water and feed, reduce their sheep numbers. It would take the flock to its smallest size since 1904. The flock peaked at almost 180 million in 1970 but has averaged about 70 million over recent years.

Cattle farmers are also finding it difficult to maintain their animal numbers, with the Australian herd tipped to fall to 23.5 million, its smallest since the early 1990s.

The agency’s chief commodity analyst, Peter Gooday, said a break in the drought would enable crop producers to return to production quickly but it would be a different story for livestock producers.

“While cropping can be expected to rebound quickly once seasonal conditions improve, the livestock sector will require a longer period for pasture to recover and begin herd rebuilding,” he said.

ABARES estimates the capacity of the livestock sector will be reduced for the “next five to 10 years” because of the time it will take to rebuild sheep and cattle numbers. It warned the rebuild would not start until after the current wet season in northern Australia or before late autumn or winter next year in more southern parts of the country.

Slaughter rates of both sheep and cattle are expected to fall this year after peaking in 2018-19, a sign of the declining size of the national flock and herd.

The broader economy is being hit, with farm exports tipped to fall 8 per cent this year. Some of this is due to local farmers diverting grain into the domestic market for feed and human consumption.

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Consumers will also notice the drop-off in livestock. Lamb prices at the sale-yard level are tipped to climb 9 per cent this year after a 30 per cent jump in 2018-19. Supermarket prices for lamb have jumped more than 14 per cent over the past 12 months.

ABARES said the drought’s grip had widened over recent months, with parts of Western Australia, the nation’s biggest crop producer, now being hit.

The new forecasts follow a meeting of the nation’s agriculture ministers on Tuesday at which they agreed to the creation of a working group including the National Farmers’ Federation to look at a possible overhaul of drought-relief programs.

Drought Minister David Littleproud said the group would look at ways to get rid of “inefficiencies and doubling up” around state and federal relief efforts. It will report by February.

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