Sheep & lamb offtake in the east and west

Sheep and Lamb in paddock

The topsy turvy nature of this season in terms of seasonal conditions, and flowing from that, sheep meat prices, has certainly not been a “business as usual” period for the Australian sheep flock. With this in mind, we look again at the sheep and lamb offtake, this time splitting the Australian flock into eastern and western.

Swings in the Australian sheep flock are important for both the supply of merino wool and sheep meat at the international level. As such changes in Australian sheep numbers are of interest for not only Australia but also other sheep regions such as the major southern hemisphere producers. As Mecardo showed in late January the year-on-year change slaughter numbers for sheep and lambs spiked to high levels in 2023, in response to drier conditions. For changes to the size of the Australian flock it is the proportion of the flock sold (sheep and lambs) sold to abattoirs which is important.

Figure 1 shows the eastern Australian sheep offtake (rolling 12-month total of adult sheep sold to abattoirs expressed as a proportion of the flock size at the beginning of the 12-month period) from 1980 onwards. The eastern sheep flock is also shown with the shaded areas denoted periods when the sheep offtake is above 13% which tends to correlate with periods of flock shrinkage. The sheep offtake has reached 12% which is close to neutral in terms of flock expansion/contraction.

Figure 2 repeats the exercise for the eastern lamb offtake. It has returned to 34% after dropping in 2021 and 2022 as some young sheep were kept back to help build the flock. At 34% the lamb offtake looks 1% below the 35% which was the base level from 2015 to 2021. That flags there is an increase in the lamb supply to come.

The next two schematics look at the Western Australian sheep flock. A quick review of the Bureau of Meteorology historic rainfall maps (view here) shows the tough seasonal conditions Western Australia has endured during the past year (and still does). Change in rainfall is a great driver of change in the sheep and lamb offtake, so given the dry conditions we should expect the sheep and lamb offtake to increase and the flock size to decrease.

Figure 3 looks at the Western Australian sheep offtake and flock from 1980 onwards. The relationship between the sheep offtake and changes in the flock size is not as tidy as in the east. However, a sheep offtake around 22% looks to be the neutral level. It has been close to or above this since the middle of 2023.

Figure 4 shows the Western Australian lamb offtake. This measure tells a definite story of downward pressure on the flock size, with the lamb offtake at record levels, close to 24%.

What does it mean?

The big driver of Australian flock size changes is the eastern sheep offtake (as the eastern flock accounts for 84% of the flock) and this measure is running at close to neutral levels at present. The eastern lamb offtake has returned to be close to 2015-2021 levels after a rebuilding period in 2021 and 2022. 

In Western Australia the flock size is under downward pressure following a very dry 2023 season. The western lamb offtake is at record levels, indicating young sheep numbers are being reduced.

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Key Points

  • The eastern Australian sheep offtake remains close to neutral levels.
  • The eastern Australian lamb offtake has returned to be close to the standard level of 2015-2021 (around 35%), but remains 1% below this level.
  • In Western Australia the sheep offtake is close to neutral levels with the lamb offtake running at record levels, which fits with a flock that should shrink in response to very dry seasonal conditions in 2023.

Click on figure to expand

Click on figure to expand

Click on figure to expand

Click on figure to expand

Data sources: BOM, ABS, ABARES, MLA, ICS 

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