Lamb numbers are down 1.3 million, but are in a better position than many farmers thought they would be from the big North Island drought.
The lamb crop is back 4.7 per cent from last spring at 25.5 million and is second only to 2010-11 for being the lowest in 60 years, according to a lamb survey by Beef + Lamb New Zealand (B+LNZ).
B+LNZ economic service chief economist Andrew Burtt said lamb numbers were higher than forecasted as last season's drought was expected to take a larger toll on ewe numbers and ewe condition at mating.
"But we're seeing good lamb thrift compared to last year – thanks to lower stocking rates and favourable pasture growth in most regions.
"If pasture continues growing at current rates, it could trigger early store sales from regions that are traditionally summer dry."
North Island lamb numbers are down 7.4 per cent and the South Island by 2.3 per cent.
The smaller lamb crop will have an influence on export processing numbers, which are expected to drop 6.8 per cent to 19.5 million head, making 2013-14 the third lowest export lamb total since 1960.
Burtt said this would be partly counterbalanced by the average export lamb slaughter weight expected to increase 2.3 per cent to 18.4 kilograms from lower stocking rates and more available feed.
''This per-head weight increase won't be enough to offset the drop in numbers and we still expect total lamb production to be down by approximately 5 per cent.''
The national ewe lambing percentage was 120.8 per cent – down on last year's record 124.6 per cent.
Again, the North Island took the biggest hit, down 5.8 percentage points to 117.6 per cent, while the South Island's lambing of 123.6 per cent represented a fall of only 2.1 percentage points.
Burtt said a feature of this spring was the significant decrease in the number of hoggets mated.
"Many farmers opted to limit the numbers of hoggets put to the ram, due to the tight feed situation at mating and hogget weights. The result is only 1.13 million lambs from hoggets – a 17 per cent drop."
Mutton processing numbers are expected to be well back on last season, down 20 per cent to 3.3 million because of the drought-driven high cull of ewes during 2012-13.
The lamb survey covers about 500 commercial sheep and beef farms nationally.