Mild autumn and rain are good news for sheep farmers

North Canterbury sheep farmers are enjoying a positive season.

A mild autumn with plenty of rain had left farmers feeling confident with winter just around the corner, New Zealand Sheep Breeders Association president Ian Stevenson, of Cheviot, said.

''You wouldn't get it much better than this, not after the rain we've just had. We are really set up for the autumn. If we get a bit of warm weather the grass is just going to go crazy.

''If we got it like this every year, farming would be easy.''

Beef and Lamb New Zealand northern South Island director Andy Fox, of Scargill Valley in the Hurunui, said his farm received 53mm of rain in one week earlier this month and was now looking set for winter.

''It always seems to be as soon as daylight savings comes; it's like flicking a switch. But this rain sets us up pretty well. It should get some grass growth, as long as it doesn't get too cold.

''I think it was not the driest or the wettest season, but on balance it's been all right. When you've got grass around, it certainly does help to take the strain off.''

Mr Fox said North Island farms were still very dry, but local farmers should have plenty of feed at the moment.

Ewe condition was looking good, but the cows were a bit light and the calves were lighter than normal due to ''the slow and dry spring''.

''It has really had a domino effect on the cattle, but the ewe condition is ideal for mating.''

However, Mr Stevenson said a higher lamb price remained on every sheep farmer's wish list.

''If we are going to keep a lamb industry, it needs to be more,'' he said. ''The prices are looking OK,'' Mr Fox said.

''No matter how good it looks, we could all do with a little more.''

Beef and Lamb NZ figures indicated the season-average retail price for lambs sold in Britain was $100, up from $85.30 last year, but down on the $113.58 paid two years ago.

However, the outlook for meat companies was ''looking pretty good'', Mr Fox said.

This season farmers received 44% of the season-average retail price, compared to 36% last year and 57% in the 2010-11 season, when the season-average retail price was $117.64.

Twelve months ago the farmer-initiated Meat Industry Excellence Group toured New Zealand calling for farmer and cross-sector support to push for industry reform and an improved meat price. However, Mr Stevenson believed the task was too great.

''It's difficult for them to do what they are trying to do. Farmers just don't have enough power.

''There is overcapacity in the meat plants. They are closing works, but it's still nowhere near capacity.''

Mr Fox said store lamb prices had been low but several farmers who previously bought store lambs had gone into dairy grazing, ''which gives them a bit more certainty''.

''But the environmental footprint for store lambs is a bit lighter, so we probably haven't got the balance right yet.

''Some land which is in dairy grazing at the moment probably shouldn't be, so that's something we will need to look at as an industry in the future.''

- by David Hill