WELCOME REST: Pru and Stuart Barkla, Mt Molar Park, Clifton, with some of their lambs ready to be trucked. Photo Linda Mantova
WELCOME REST: Pru and Stuart Barkla, Mt Molar Park, Clifton, with some of their lambs ready to be trucked. Photo Linda Mantova

‘Step of confidence’ for sheep producers as prices surge

THE sight of a full carpark is enough for our region's sheep producers to grow cautiously optimistic as saleyards hold condition and prices inch back to normal.

Before early 2020 rain, McDougall and Sons sheep agent Ross Ellis was worried about rural locations becoming 'virtual ghost towns' as breeding stock sold off in alarming numbers.

Now, while drought was far from over, a return to a competitive middle range had left the agent feeling a 'step of confidence' in his stride.

"Anything with a bit of condition is now being sought after by the processors and anything that isn't in condition is being sought after by restockers," he said.

"Compared to last week, the top market eased off a fraction but the lighter end and middle-of-the-range lambs were very competitive."

The saleyards yarded a total of 1776 on Wednesday, a 30 per cent increase from last week, but unlike last year's high yarding totals, prices were also increasing in tandem.

Mr Ellis sold the highest priced ewe at $236, which went straight back into the paddock.

"The vendors were very happy that's the way it went," he said.

"A lot of people have held on and looked after their stock and are reaping the rewards and it's a credit to those farmers."

One such farmer was Stuart Barkla.

He made $242 on a ewe lamb at this week's sale, and $257 the week prior.

For the Clifton sheep producer, 2019 had almost driven him to the end of his tether.

Only receiving 125mm of rain for the whole year, he spent 22 months feeding his 300 ewes, at $40 a head, plus hay incursions.

"There has been enormous costs in feeding them and keeping them going," he said.

"When hay got so expensive, the question was raised whether we keep breeders going but we've been fortunate."

In the past five to six weeks, his property has received about 300mm, more than double his 2019 total, and a godsend.

Mr Barkla, who had previously destocked completely on his Cunnamulla property in 2013, knew what it was like to be in the shoes of those who were forced to sell up.

"I absolutely feel for those farmers," he said.

"Some people just quit their breeders prior to the rain and that's just heartbreaking.

"It's been a very difficult period for everybody and it's not over yet."

With stock now feeding on grass, Mr Barkla believed he could consolidate until well into winter but warned it could take years for the industry to get back on its feet.

"It's only a break for us, and certainly not drought-breaking by any means," he said.

"We still need rain to string together over two to three seasons. That's the real challenge, from both breeding and trading stock, to generate cash flow again."

Mr Barkla's predictions match the recent ABARES report, showing while saleyard lamb prices will remain at historically high levels over 2020 they will trend downwards during the next five years.

Still, for exhausted farmers, any rest was welcome.

"This isn't over any stretch and there's a lot of farmers that still haven't had a great deal - out west and here," Mr Barkla said.

"The industry is still on tenterhooks but it's a good start."