Bumper lamb crop good news for economy

BUMPER LAMBING: A strong dollar is forecast to push the market price of lamb down but favourable spring conditions should offset the lower prices.
BUMPER LAMBING: A strong dollar is forecast to push the market price of lamb down but favourable spring conditions should offset the lower prices.

As we struggle through winter's cold misery it's helpful to recall the bright days of summer and remind ourselves that better times will soon return.

Except that last summer was a bitch - wet, sultry days with hardly a glimpse of the sun.

But the silver lining in those grey clouds will soon be revealed.

If all goes well, we can expect a bumper crop of lambs on the hills this spring.

Scanning of expectant ewes in the lower North Island shows pregnancy rates up 10-20 per cent on last year. This is expected to be reflected throughout the country, except, perhaps, for Otago.

We can all rejoice at this news. It's always nice to see the little woolly jumpers scampering about the green slopes as we drive by - the most welcome of spring's messages of rebirth.

And, taking a more mercenary approach, it's also nice to know they will be turned into the cash to give our ailing economy a boost.

It could mean as much $117 million added to the $2.4 billion lamb sales brought in last season.

This figure assumes as much as one million extra lambs will be available for export - a not unreasonable figure, I feel - and uses the Primary Industries Ministry's forecast of a schedule price of $6.35 a kilogram.

For the reason for this bounty we have to go back to conditions on farms in the weeks before these lambs were conceived.

In late summer-early autumn, the country, apart from parts of Otago, was looking exceptionally lush. Rain and sun were a perfect match. Holidaymakers may have been cursing but farmers were smiling.

Ewes ate well and were in such good condition for mating that the scanners are now showing many more twins and triplets are expected.

Of course, much can still happen between now and docking, a few weeks after birth when farmers bring their mobs into the yards to check the condition of the new lambs, to remove their tails to protect them from disease and to count them.

Now that they know how many lambs are expected, they can act to protect them.

Lamb losses are inevitable - some don't have the inherent strength to survive the cold, wet weather and the death toll can rise sharply if a vicious storm strikes.

But enough is now known about how to give lambs the best chance of survival in normal weather for farmers to have few excuses for losses higher than 20 per cent.

Jon Hickford, associate professor of animal breeding and genetics at Lincoln University, suggests a national strategy be drawn up by farmers, advisers and scientists with several goals.

These could include:

❏ Reducing lamb losses to less than 10 per cent of those born “in any given year and in any flock”, with a target of achieving 5 per cent.

❏ Closer management of fertility so that most lambs are twins, not triplets.

❏ Keeping birthweights of 4kg or more for all lambs, regardless of whether they are singles, twins or triplets.

❏ Maintaining ewes at condition scores of 3.5 or greater throughout pregnancy.

❏ A standard for shelterbelts, specifying their need if wind run limits are reached.

❏ Rigid feed budgeting based on science. Twin-bearing ewes may need up to 3kg of dry matter a day in late pregnancy.

He knows South Island conditions well and in the lower North Island, Feilding vet and farm consultant Trevor Cook is the expert.

He also talks about condition score - the rating of an animal's health by feeling fat cover on the backbone and ribs.

He says the single most important factor influencing lambing is the percentage of ewes that are below body condition score 3 at mating and lambing.

Lamb survival decreases 5 per cent for every half a condition score lost in the four weeks before lambing and survival also falls 5 per cent for every half a condition score below 3 at lambing.

So the message to farmers is simple - get those ewes at most risk on to good feed now.

That may not be as easy as it seems. The autumn flush of feed was so luxuriant that farmers did not have enough stock to keep up with it. Consequently, a lot of grass went to waste.

A recent flush of growth from a warm spell may have alleviated this on some farms, but many farmers will be looking for ways to make room for the extra bodies expected at lambing. Hoggets will require grazing off the farm and some cattle will have to be sold.

Still, it's a problem we would all like to have - too much of a good thing.

I know it's not much comfort for us in the towns to think of farmers' good fortunes as we battle the winter blues.

But just think - summer is coming. And it may be a long, hot one, if climate indicators continue their trend toward El Nino conditions.

Then it will be the farmers' turn to be miserable, again.