AUSTRALIA’S sheep and wool industry and levy-funded bodies have failed to meet a target to raise average reproduction rates by 10 percent between 2012-17, a new report has found, while the nation’s flock remained historically low and sheep meat demand stayed strong.
The Sheep Reproduction RD&E Impact Assessment reviewed 120 industry projects and initiatives against the objectives of the Sheep Reproduction RD&E Investment Plan 2012-2017 (SRRIP) and other industry strategies.
The overall objective of the plan was to achieve an average annual gain of 2pc in sheep reproduction rates over the five-year planning period. However, the assessment found the average annual rate of gain was between 0.6-1.5pc during that period.
The average annual rate of gain in marking rates during the SRRIP delivery period was 1-1.4pc for Merino lambs and 0.6-1.7pc for all other lambs, depending on the data source.
Although the assessment report author – Beattie Consulting Services — found the rate of gain was highly likely to have been negatively influenced by below average seasonal conditions during the SRRIP delivery period, it also listed a number of industry and organisational factors in the SRRIP objective not being achieved.
Beattie Consulting Services and Inspiring Excellence were engaged to undertake the assessment by research and development corporation Meat & Livestock Australia on behalf of project partners, Australian Wool Innovation and Animal Health Australia, with input from peak industry councils, Sheep Producers Australia and Wool Producers Australia.
Compared to SRRIP recommendations, the assessment said that the proportion of total expenditure on sheep reproduction from 2012-2017 had been 83p higher on applied research, 40pc lower on development and extension, and 55pc lower on strategic research.
The consultants found that the SRRIP was not effectively utilised to guide investment decisions and there was a lack of resourcing and accountability to ensure the SRRIP was effectively implemented and monitored to achieve its objectives.
“For a new SRRIP to be successfully implemented it would require formal commitment from all industry partners, including RDCs, producer organisations, researchers and public and private extension providers and advisors, for the duration of the planning period,” the report said.
“According to stakeholder feedback, relative to the perceived importance of the issue of lamb survival to the sheep industry, the level of funding allocated by the RDCs (MLA and AWI) to sheep reproduction RD&E, particularly to development and extension activities, is considered to be inadequate to achieve the desired industry outcomes for lamb survival.”
The assessment also found that since 2012, Australian Wool innovation’s Lifetime Ewe Management (LTEM) program, has had the most influence on sheep reproduction efficiency, impacting the management of around 6 million ewes over six years. The BredWell FedWell (BWFW) program, supported by MLA, also influenced the management of around 1.6 million ewes over the same period.
The assessment found that although there has been a considerable amount of sheep reproduction R&D that has generated new knowledge to address information gaps, much of it has not translated to adoptable products to increase reproduction efficiency on farms.
Key gaps in sheep reproduction RD&E identified in the assessment included that research has not been applied to different systems and zones, funding is over reliant on the priorities of MLA livestock research committees, consultants are an underutilised resource and there is a need for farm-level solutions.
The assessment said that stakeholders were concerned that a disproportionate amount of MLA and AWI sheep reproduction R&D funding is provided to a relatively small proportion of delivery organisations and individuals, “which limits the potential for maintaining and building R&D capacity and capability, and increases risk.”
The assessment’s key finding was that there remains a significant opportunity to boost adoption to increase reproduction efficiency on-farm. The consultants’ recommendations include that a new National Sheep Reproduction RD&E Investment plan be developed for commencement in 2020/21. They said the plan should include detailed guidelines for improved investment planning, monitoring and evaluation, delivery and collaboration, and especially between AWI, MLA, sheep consultants and research providers.
This would include a more structure collaboration framework, which for MLA and AWI would mean identifying priority areas for funding, “and where these areas cross over, co-funding arrangements are implemented. This may be at a program level, or if more delineation of investment areas is required, at a national level.”
A joint release today said MLA, AWI, AHA, WPA and SPA share a commitment to increasing lamb survivability through industry RD&E and adoption of relevant on-farm management practices.
New partnership needed – MLA
MLA general manager, research, development and adoption, Michael Crowley, said the findings will help inform the next steps and priorities for a new Sheep Reproduction Strategic Partnership (SRSP) with a focus on making a material difference to the reproduction performance of the Australian flock.
“MLA is establishing the SRSP together with industry partners to help producers profitably and sustainably increase lamb production through increasing weaning rates and lamb survival.
“The major priority of the SRSP is to lift lamb survival in the Australian sheep industry through the increased adoption of proven management practices which have been developed through key research projects over the years,” he said.
“It will involve industry organisations working collaboratively to develop larger, long-term research, development and adoption initiatives that focus on lamb survival and address a common goal of delivering greater benefits and impacts for the industry.
“The aim is to move away from stand-alone, ad hoc projects, and work towards an agreed vision that develops an investable program of work, ensuring producers can successfully implement practical R&D solutions for their farm businesses to decrease mortality and boost weaning rates.”
AWI general manager, research, Jane Littlejohn, said AWI is pleased to see further evidence of the importance of the Lifetime Ewe Management investment on practice change by producers and growers.
“The review highlights adoption and AWI will continue to work with MLA to convert past collaborative R&D into extension for the benefit of our common levy payers.”
SPA sheep health & welfare policy manager, William Oldfield, said improving sheep reproductive performance has consistently been identified as a high priority from producers, and is recognised as a major potential opportunity and risk to social licence.
“While there has been a longstanding focus on generating new R&D, moving forward it is essential this knowledge is effectively translated into adoptable products for producers.
“Importantly, findings from this report will provide the foundation for a strategic long-term program of work with a clear focus on fostering collaborative partnerships and delivering for sheep producers across Australia,” he said.
By undertaking this work, industry will be addressing a key component contributing towards ensuring consistency of sheep meat supply both within the domestic market and internationally.
“Advancements in this field will ultimately result in improvements in the productivity, profitability and sustainability of the sheep meat sector.”
WPA chief executive officer Jo Hall, said WPA initiated development of the proposal for consideration by MLA, AWI and AHA in collaboration with SPA, following evidence that there was a significant spend of grower levies on sheep reproduction RD&E over recent years, yet the national average lamb survival rate had not increased.
“It was important to understand why this may have been the case, and the review provides insights into challenges that can be addressed to achieve improved reproduction outcomes and survival rates.
WPA is very supportive of the next iteration of this work, as an industry collective, to deliver practical RD&E solutions to increase survival rates and deliver maximum return on grower levies expended on this important R&D portfolio,” she said.
AHA biosecurity & product integrity executive manager, Simon Humphrys, said the report reinforced that good health and husbandry of sheep (ewes and rams) underpins reproductive outcomes each breeding season, and for lambs, their lifetime reproductive capacity.
“At AHA, we are confident the SRSP will make a difference on the ground to producer profitability and through that industry sustainability, as well as adjacent industry sustainability (transporters and processors) at a time where we need to reverse the prevailing trend of fewer sheep.
“We’re on board.”
The Sheep Reproduction RD&E Impact Assessment final report is available to download here.
Click here for more information on the assessment and other industry plans.