New Zealand's sheep flock has decreased 3% on the 2014-2015 season to 28.3m head, with drought and outbreaks of facial eczema the main factors causing the decline, Beef and Lamb New Zealand has said.

In it's latest stock number survey, it found that breeding ewe numbers fell across all regions of New Zealand.

Chris Spooner, Beef and Lamb New Zealand's Chief Operating Officer, said that breeding ewe numbers were down by 3.1% overall - but the largest drop was in Marlborough and Canterbury (-6.5%) due to the ongoing drought conditions.

"North Island ewe numbers decreased 2.9% to 9.0m, with drought conditions and facial eczema a significant cause.

"South Island numbers dropped 3.3% to 9.5m, also affected significantly by drought. Reducing capital stock numbers is often the least preferred option for farmers, so it does reflect a very challenging year."

Spooner says the national hogget flock is also down on last year, with numbers down 3% to 8.9m. The North Island registered the most dramatic drop with numbers down 6.9%.

Meanwhile, ewe condition and scanning results have been variable across New Zealand and the lamb crop is expected to be down by 2.9%, to 23.3m - 0.7m fewer than last season, Spooner said.

"This is the result of several factors, including fewer breeding ewes and higher empty rates, which will reduce lambs born to ewes mated."

New Zealand beef herd increases

The stock survey found that New Zealand’s beef cattle herd increased by 2.8% to 3.7m head during the 2015–16 season. 

Spooner said that the 2.8% increase in beef cattle numbers follows a 3.3% decline in the 2014–15 season.

The largest contributor to the increase in cattle numbers was a lift in weaner cattle across many regions, up 8.2% as farmers responded to good returns, he said.

"The exception to the increased weaner numbers trend was on the East Coast of the North Island, which experienced dry weather conditions."

There was a continuing decline in the beef breeding herd, down by 1.6%, and this reflects the trend to more flexible cattle systems.

"This reinforces the need for better integration with the dairy industry – particularly with genetics, which is a key area of focus for Beef and Lamb," he said.

Spooner said many farmers would want to have more stock on hand at this time of year – however, a combination of dairy farmers rearing more replacements themselves (normally grazed on sheep and beef farms), climatic conditions that have led to early sales of stock, lower pasture covers in some regions and in some cases a shortage of available replacement stock, are all factors.

"The challenge for farmers will be maximising the performance of animals on hand and secondly, as farming conditions allow, finding profitable stock classes to restock with."