The wool industry needs to be at its best as more Australian sheep producers choose to turn towards meat sheep breeds.
That's the message from WoolProducers Australia president Ed Storey.
Data from the latest Meat & Livestock Australia and Australian Wool Innovation Sheepmeat and Wool Survey shows that the number of Merino lambs marked in 2021 was 12.1 million head, a reduction of two per cent on the previous year, while the number of pure meat and first-cross lambs marked increased 400,000 head and 300,000 to 4.1 million head and 3.1 million head, respectively.
Mr Storey said there was no denying that the shift was a major challenge for Australia's wool industry.
"Getting into the mixed farming sector, cropping enterprises and production of protein fit in well together and the sheep meat market has been very solid for a number of years now and the world's demand for protein is not going anywhere," he said.
"In wool enterprises the labour requirements are a little higher and getting people to do those functions is not getting any easier at the moment so I'm sure that's playing a role in some people's decisions.
"We need to challenge ourselves in the wool industry whether we are still making productivity gains through our R & D, through our policy setting... there is the opportunity to do that.
"We know that a wool-focused Merino block in certain parts of Australia is the most profitable enterprise you can do, you've just got to be prepared to work."
Mr Storey said the wool industry needed to be at its best to rise to the challenge.
"We need to be on our game," he said.
"Otherwise the sheep meat sector will continue to grow and some of that growth will be at the expense of wool production.
"It behoves us to ensure our policy setting bodies, our wool producers, Australian Wool Innovation, our other service providers like AWEX and the AWTA are all working on the same page and as efficiently and as well as they can, not working against each other."
Australian Wool Innovation acting CEO John Roberts said whether producers stayed in the wool industry or made the change to meat sheep breeds was a choice for the individual woolgrower.
"Meat prices have been at record highs for 12 months so that's only natural," he said.
"Overall the Australian wool forecasting committee are predicting an eight per cent increase this year in production... that's good for the wool industry more broadly.
"In terms of woolgrowers shifting their focus to meat production, that's a decision for them.
"Those wools that come off those sheep, we still do a lot of work in that area and promote those wools as well in the broader 24 to 33 or 34 micron range."
Mr Roberts said the trend towards meat sheep "gives us a prod" to continue to focus on promoting those wools as the more superfine wools.
"Historically if you look at the proportion of what we spend on promoting and doing research into product development for crossbred wools, it actually fares very well compared to its value," he said.
"We're going to definitely continue to invest in there.
"Interestingly as we come out of the pandemic we're seeing a lot of other industries wanting to move to more sustainable practices.
"That includes the hospitality industry... the hotel industry is very focused on having sustainable, biodegradable fibres in their carpets, in their upholsteries and curtains, so we think that's a great growth area opportunity for crossbred wools.
"The automotive industry is also coming under significant scrutiny in terms of meeting certain sustainable targets so they are also looking for things like biodegradable, natural upholsteries in their vehicles so we're doing a lot of work in that space."
Start the day with all the big news in agriculture! Sign up below to receive our daily Farmonline newsletter.
Sign up for our newsletter to stay up to date.