Interest in joining Merino ewe lambs is running high but leading senior sheep consultants warn of serious consequences if some major boxes aren't ticked.
Producers are looking at ways to increase sheep numbers to either cash in on booming meat markets and relatively attractive wool prices or to more quickly rebuild their flocks when the rains come.
Most producers are keen to maintain or increase their ewe numbers once the drought breaks.
The recent growth in containment feeding as a drought management tool has also opened many producers' eyes to higher conception rates when ewes are joined in confined areas.
Traditionally most people join Merino ewes for the first time when they are around 18 months of age but they can be joined successfully as young as seven months.
But leading sheep consultants like Geoff Duddy, Sheep Solutions, Inglewood, Qld, warns that both genetics and nutrition have to be spot on or the move could prove costly.
Get those two things wrong and producers might end up with stunted ewes, inferior lambs and lost wool income.
Mr Duddy said he was seeing keen interest in joining ewe lambs among his clients.
He said adopting the practice would be difficult in the traditional sheep breeding areas of western NSW and Queensland because short seasons (even in normal times) raised the risk of inadequate feed supply.
"I am not saying it can't be done as long as they look after that lamb and really push her feed-wise," he said.
Mr Duddy said Merino ewes generally needed to be up around nine to 10 months of age to reach a critical body weight for joining.
Meat breeds like Dorpers, crossbreds and composites tended to get to the required joining weight quicker than Merinos.
A ewe lamb needed to be around 75 per cent of the average weight of the mature ewe flock before joining, he said.
He also advised feeding ewe lambs just prior to joining so they were on a rising plane of nutrition.
Joining ewe lambs in a containment area was also a big advantage because maidens accepted rams for shorter periods (around 12 hours) per cycle compared with around 1.5 days for mature ewes.
"The ram has only got half a day every 21 days to find that (maiden) ewe," Mr Duddy said.
"A lot of people who have been using containment areas for joining in this drought have found conception rates of 15 to 20pc higher than ewes joined out in their paddocks."
Containment areas were also ideal for preferentially feeding twin-bearing ewes post-scanning, he said.
Research led by Dr Edward Clayton from the NSW Department of Primary Industries has found ewes fed cereal grains produce more ewe lambs than males and more twins.
Wagga Wagga-based sheep consultant and classer, Craig Wilson, said he wasn't a big fan of joining Merinos as ewe lambs.
He said with the right genetics there was no reason a Merino ewe couldn't lamb by 12 months of age.
But producers needed to feed and manage them well which all came at a cost, he said.
If things went pear-shaped the ewe lamb may have an inferior offspring and be difficult to get into lamb the following year.
"It might make more sense to give your mature ewes a bit more feed and try to get a few more lambs from them," he said.
Mr Wilson suggested Merino ewe lambs should be condition score 3 and a minimum 45kg before joining.
And joining them in autumn rather than spring was another big advantage.
Mr Wilson said a huge problem for the industry was the number of five-year-old ewes being sold to processors because of the drought.
Many producers were worried about when the drought would finally end as well as the seasonal outlook in the longer term.
Sheep were getting scarcer and dearer, he said, and restockers were having trouble competing with processors.
Producers who had been feeding sheep for a long time were looking at their five-year-old ewes and deciding to take the $150 to $200 on offer for them.
Anthony Shepherd, Sheepmatters, Cootamundra, NSW, said interest in joining ewe lambs was high.
Success, however, wasn't a matter of luck but required strict genetic discipline to breed young ewes properly equipped for early joining.
And the best genetics in the world wouldn't help unless nutrition was at the right level, he said.
Three years ago Mr Shepherd started weighing lambs at marking and again at weaning to measure growth rates.
He had found a high correlation between early weight gain and early ovulation and puberty.
A small number of his clients were now successfully joining ewe lambs.
A key to success was providing enough nutrition for both the continued growth of the ewe lamb as well as her developing foetus.
The consequences of getting nutrition wrong was a ewe that would get "older" quicker because of poor bone and organ development, Mr Shepherd said.