Scanning contractors operating in the drought-riddled areas of western NSW have added weight to claims the 2019 sheep breeding season is headed for disaster.
Jock Dunne, Hay, NSW, who has 15 years of scanning experience, said scanning results so far are as low as the worst years in the 10-year drought.
"It really has depended on the quality and amount of supplement that has been fed to the sheep," Mr Dunne said.
"There are some better results where 90 per cent have returned in lamb but there are plenty of others where conception rates have been less than 30pc."
He recalled one occasion where he was called to scan 6000 ewes and was home for lunch.
"We let the sheep go after an hour because the number detected was negligible and it wasn't worth the expense of continuing," he said.
Scanning up to 300,000 ewes annually in the Riverina, Tasmania and southern Queensland, Mr Dunne said most of his normal engagements were to identify twin-bearing ewes so survival management could be maximised.
However, he said most of this year's work was to identify the ewes that had conceived because empty ewes were either being sold to reduce feed bills, or run dry and maintained on survival rations to retain numbers.
He said on a small handful of properties, some empty ewes had been returned to the ram paddock in the hope of an autumn break and the possibility of a late-drop lamb.
This was mainly the case in the early-joined flocks, but where later joinings were the norm, the drys were mostly being left to run dry.
Mr Dunne said the poor scanning results were fairly widespread, and impacting most breeds, even Dorpers.
G&B Gathercole livestock buyer John Collins, Carrum Downs, said the impact this would have on the industry would send it into uncharted and very turbulent territory.
"A lot of our modern lamb plants are now highly geared focused on large volume, export production," Mr Collins said.
"Taking a practical view of the current climate, if ewe numbers are as depleted and conception rates as low as they reckon, then early sucker supply could be non-existent."
He said unlike beef, lambs have a use-by date by breaking teeth.
"But I don't think there will be enough spring-drop lambs from last year left to carry the shortfall through until October when the next crop of lambs will be ready," he said.
He said the biggest shortfall could be in the light lamb area because producers will aim to maximise their opportunities by feeding and value-adding the numbers they breed.
Ray Clarke, Westside Meats, Bacchus Marsh, said he was currently focused on filling his winter needs.
"As long as it stays dry, there won't be a sucker supply of any volume until at least October," Mr Clarke said.
"Fulfilling the needs of demand between times will take some sorting and is bound to cause plenty of pain."