A record high lambing percentage illustrates the sheep and beef sector's productivity gains, Rob Davison, of Beef + Lamb New Zealand's Economic Service, says.

B+LNZ's Economic Service estimated the number of lambs tailed this season was 23.5 million, down 0.7% (163,000) on the previous spring, with the decline due to the higher lambing percentage not offsetting the 2.1% decline in breeding ewes.

The average ewe lambing percentage was 129%, up 1.7 percentage points on last year and up nearly 8 percentage points on the average for the previous 10 years (2008-09 to 2017-18) of 121.4%.

B+LNZ's lamb crop report, released this week, provided further evidence of sheep and beef farmers "doing more with less'', continuing an ongoing trend in the wider sector to improve efficiencies, Mr Davison said.


In the North Island, the number of lambs tailed dropped by 3.2% because the number of ewes mated declined 3.5% as farmers ran relatively more beef cattle, and the lambing percentage was unchanged.

In the South Island, the number of lambs increased 1.7% (208,000 head) to 12.2 million head. The increase was influenced by Marlborough-Canterbury where there was an 8.1% increase following some difficult years.

The average South Island lambing percentage was 129.9%, up 3.2 percentage points on 2017. That was due to a sharp increase in lambing percentage in Marlborough-Canterbury and a smaller increase in Southland, which more than offset a decline in Otago.

Dry conditions in summer 2017-18 had a significant effect on ewe pregnancy rates on some farms, particularly in Clutha and Southland districts. Combined, Otago and Southland represented one-third of the national lamb crop.

The number of lambs available nationally for export processing in 2018-19 was estimated at 19.05 million head, down 4.1% on 2017's 19.87 million.

The tonnage of lamb produced was expected to decrease by 4.4% due to the combination of fewer lambs and a slightly lower average carcass weight.

Farmers in Otago-Southland reported feed supply to be well ahead of usual. However, some mentioned that quality could be lost if pastures were not carefully managed, and that could compromise lamb growth rates.