Higher lambing percentages and export carcass weights are helping offset a dramatic drop in sheep numbers.

Numbers have almost halved since 1991, but the amount of product being exported has remained stable as farmers focus on improving their systems.

Negative publicity has overshadowed the fact farmers have made significant gains in productivity and the industry has the potential to cash in on future growth, industry leaders are saying. Beef and Lamb New Zealand chief executive Scott Champion says the organisation focused on "best practice behind the farm gate".

The dairy industry was a fantastic success story but sheep and beef farmers could also improve their profitability, he says. "We are trying to demonstrate the things that you can do to be profitable and more competitive. I think there are really good opportunities for people and we see pockets of that."

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Beef and Lamb NZ held 350 events nationwide that attracted 17,500 farmers last year.

"Over the last few years we have put a big effort into driving extension programmes to support farmers."

Topics included farm profitability, management of animals, new crops, livestock nutrition and the organisation also piloted workshops on budgeting and business management.

The sector has issues that would not be solved overnight, but farmer confidence has lifted. Too often people looked at the negatives, says Federated Farmers Bay of Plenty provincial president Rick Powdrell. "The meat industry is not broken. If you look at the top 10 to 15 per cent of beef and lamb farmers, figures show they are right up there as far as production levels against dairy," he says.

The objective is to work within the farm gate and lift the game of middle farmers.

"At the moment it's a bell curve and if you move the bell to the higher end it means more production and more returns and the farmers and industry will be better off."

Powdrell says he has driven his farm harder than in the past: "We are fairly productive and have done a lot of work with the mix of our stock to get the right blend."

He farms 441 effective hectares and carries 2100 ewes, 525 hoggets, 300 rising 2-year-old dairy grazers, 250 rising 1-year-old calves, 23 carry-over dairy cows and 105 steers.

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Volatile market prices are an ongoing challenge but farmer optimism had shifted, he says.

Beef and Lamb NZ mid-northern farmer council chairman Rick Burke says genetics have improved dramatically.

"That is why our lambing percentage and carcass weights have gone up.

"The top farmers realise they need to feed their sheep adequately to capture their full genetic potential."