The largest gainers have been beef cattle, reflecting the positive prices farmers have been receiving on world markets.
Statistics NZ figures show that for the year ended June 2018, the national dairy cattle herd had fallen by 1 per cent to 6.4 million compared to the year before. At the height of the dairy boom in 2014, there were 6.7 million.
By contrast beef cattle numbered 3.8 million, almost back to 2011 levels.
The nation’s sheep flock has dropped to 27.2 million, in line with a trend starting three decades ago, although there were more lambs born (24.6 million) as farmers chased after some of the highest prices seen for five years.
Beef+Lamb NZ chairman Andrew Morrison said the figures showed how cyclical farming was, with dairy attracting most investment until recently. Dairy is still the largest export earner, at $14.1 billion.
“Besides good prices, one of the reasons farmers have gone to beef is it’s proving hard to access labour for more intensive sheep farming, although sheep are still a positive story.
“There are some real strong benefits from eating grass-fed beef. That’s not to say you should be eating it all the time, then there might be some questions,” Morrison said.
Beef + Lamb NZ’s chief economist Andrew Burtt said the latest final lamb crop figures from Statistics NZ were for spring 2017.
“They suggest about 4 per cent more lambs than we forecast, which is interesting and a positive sign for the industry. For beef cattle the trend is as expected and outlined in our earlier forecasts.”
Statistics NZ agricultural production statistics manager Stuart Pitts said total sheep numbers had fallen in 10 of the past 12 years. In 2006 they stood at 40.1 million.
“New Zealand now has 5.6 sheep for every person, after peaking at 22 sheep for every person in 1982.”
Despite a rise in dairy cattle numbers, a large fall in sheep and beef cattle since 1990 meant overall stock units have fallen in the past 28 years,.
A stock unit is based on the annual feed needed for a 55 kilogram ewe rearing a single lamb. A dairy cow is the equivalent of about seven ewes, so is counted as seven stock units, compared with just one stock unit for a ewe.
In 1990 there were 100 million stock units in total, more than half of those sheep, with most of the rest in beef and dairy cattle. Deer make up a small part of the total.
By 2004, total stock unit numbers fell to 94 million and in 2018 that was down to 86 million. The drop was largely down to fewer sheep.