Agents are hopeful the upcoming Merino ram sale season will mirror last year's strong results with the lifts in averages seen in recent years maintained and clearance rates of 90 per cent or more again.
But many studs are understandably nervous about the impact SA-Vic and even SA-NSW border restrictions could have on bidding, especially at on-property sales that have a strong interstate client base.
The Eastern Market Indicator is more than 600 cents a kilogram below the same time last year but on the flipside, many Merino lambs have made more than $200 this season and mutton has been at all-time highs.
Elders SA stud stock manager Tony Wetherall and Nutrien SA Livestock stud stock manager Gordon Wood estimate 15 per cent to 20pc of early Merino sales, which start today (Thursday) at Mulloorie, Tintinara, will be interfaced with online bidding. Many more studs could follow if the hard borders remain.
Mr Wetherall says season-wise, the majority of the state is in a good position, which could help sales.
The exceptions are much of the pastoral area, which remains in drought, and the Far West Coast.
He foresees the biggest impact of COVID-19 being on prices for top-end rams as potential buyers have been unable to inspect these rams at the Hay Sheep Show in NSW or the Australian Sheep & Wool Show at Bendigo, Vic.
"If COVID-19 doesn't ease up in the next few weeks and the buyers can't come from interstate, we might see some top-end rams kept as stud reserves," he said.
Mr Wetherall says Merino breeders are far less comfortable buying rams sight unseen than British Breed rams, where he says the performance data and photos will tell "much more of the story".
"Wool is a touch and feel scenario - they want to see the structure, the nourishment and the length of the fibre to bid with confidence," he said.
Mr Wood says the reduction in wool prices will take the "shine off" sales, but "very solid" lamb returns and surplus ewe sales should prevent any major falls.
"When growers were getting $3000 a bale they did not see an extra bid as too much, but they may hold off that last bid that they might have made last year," he said.
"We are one of the few industries in the world and particularly Australia that is relatively untouched by COVID-19 pandemic.
"Most parts are looking at a good season so it looks like for a lot of farmers, 2020 could still be a strong year."
Mr Wood says some commercial producers with self-replacing Merino flocks may look to join another mob or two of 5.5- to 6.5-year-old ewes back to prime lamb sires due to wool prices.
He also believes rams with early growth and excellent carcase traits will be highly sought-after this year.
"Even whilst wool prices were at record highs, the wool value in ewe and lamb production only ever made up 30-40pc, so really lambing percentages and lamb survival and a ewe that can get into good condition and get back in lamb is what we want."
INTERSTATE BREEDERS PUT TRUST IN STUDS
Few records are expected to fall at 2020 ram sales but South East Merino Field Day president Ryan Kluska predicts results on a par with 2019.
"The wool market was going gangbusters at the start of the year until COVID-19 hit but the season is better throughout Australia so we may see increased enquiry for rams," he said. "The die-hards in Merinos are always going to be in Merinos which we have seen over the last 20 years or more."
He says breeding ewes are again likely to be a "hot ticket item" as flocks rebuild, adding to Merino incomes.
"You only have to look at the enquiry we have already seen in April-May for breeding sheep from the eastern states," he said.
Merino SA president Nick Wadlow says the strong interest at last week's Eyre Peninsula Inspection Days shows there is still a lot of positivity in the industry.
"While wool prices are not at the all-time highs we have become used to, hopefully its only a temporary setback until world markets recover," he said.
"The reality is Merino numbers are still low due to drought conditions and people are looking to breed as many ewes as they can so Merino ram sales should be similar to last year."
Mr Wadlow said SA stud breeders had been on the front foot with their interstate clients.
"There is a lot of trust between clients and stud breeders and in years like this it pays off - a lot of cross-border purchasers are leaving it in the hands of the vendors," he said.
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