The decades-long decline in New Zealand's sheep population was largely arrested in the year to June 30, while the cattle herd increased by 2.8 per cent to 3.6 million head, Beef and Lamb New Zealand said in its annual stock number survey.

Beef and Lamb NZ said total sheep numbers fell by just 0.9 per cent to 27.34 million in the year, following on from a 5.3 per cent decline in the previous year.

The farmer-funded organisation said the decline in the sheep flock slowed sharply as sheep numbers recovered in key regions after drought and other challenges.

The sheep population has generally been in decline since it peaked at 70.3 million in 1982, reflecting depressed wool prices, droughts in the 1990s, and competition from other land-intensive farming activities such as dairy and forestry.


The survey highlighted the continued growth in beef production, as farmers move towards livestock that is less labour-intensive and currently more profitable.

The largest contributor to the increase in the number of beef cattle was a 5 per cent lift in weaner cattle numbers, reflecting the high cost of buying older cattle as replacements, and good grass availability, the survey said.

Meanwhile, the size of the country's beef breeding cow herd did not change, Beef and Lamb's economic service chief economist Andrew Burtt said.

Burtt said the number of breeding ewes fell in most regions - and by 1.9 per cent overall. The exception was in Marlborough-Canterbury, where there was a small increase of 0.3 per cent following a prolonged drought.

Ewe numbers decreased 2.6 per cent to 8.7 million in the North Island, while South Island numbers dropped 1.1per cent to 9.1 million.

"The decrease in the North Island reflects residual effects of last year's facial eczema outbreak. However, nationwide there has been more emphasis on retaining ewe hoggets, which indicates some rebuilding of the flock is occurring," Burtt said.

Consequently, the national hogget flock is up on last year.

"Hogget numbers increased 1.7 per cent to 8.7 million, largely due to replacement ewe hoggets being retained on the East Coast to build up flocks, and an increase in Marlborough-Canterbury to take advantage of the improvement in feed supplies after a number of difficult years caused by drought and natural disasters," he said.


Burtt said ewes were in good condition at mating, and going into winter, due to feed availability.

"Pregnancy scanning of ewes reveals good pregnancy rates in the North Island, but the later season as a result of climatic differences means it's difficult to generalise about the South Island."

Despite the small decrease in the number of breeding ewes, the lamb crop is expected to be up 1.1 per cent - to 23.5 million.

This is the result of several factors, including continued improvements in productivity by farmers leading to better ewe lambing percentages, good feed supplies and a lift in the number of ewe hoggets mated, Burtt said.