This year's crop of prime lambs hasn't had an easy ride. The incessant wet summer delayed mid-summer marketings - and probably kept lamb prices artificially high.
And now the challenges of 2012 are continuing into the autumn as many lambs are much lighter in condition than they would be at this time of year, autumn grass quality is poor and feed costs are escalating.
Market prices down
It's causing more than a few headaches for finishers who saw late October market prices dipping below last year's level - about 154p/kg compared with 162p/kg in 2011 - and there's little on the horizon to suggest any significant upturn.
Auctioneers are already blaming some of the price dip on the poorer quality of slaughter lambs coming forward. But while the rising costs of filling hoppers is compelling finishers to rely more on the plentiful supplies of grass the wet summer has left behind, sheep advisers are urging finishers to do less "wishful thinking" when it comes to depending on autumn pastures to pile on the kilos.
And while finishers try and produce the best lambs they can without resorting to bought-in feeds, discounts are hitting the poorer-fleshed lambs that fail to meet the specification of buyers.
Some pundits fear this situation could be exacerbated by even more lambs being sold in the coming weeks as a result of postponed selling during late summer and further driven by finishers who decide to "cash-in" their lambs now rather than pay £250-plus a tonne for feed and still risk falling foul of a weakening market.
While most lamb finishers are finding lambs are hitting the scales a lot lighter than expected, some deadweight sellers have found a few surprises when studying the abattoir weigh-sheets. Not all lambs this season have underperformed; some abattoirs have been faced with lambs on the hook carrying too much finish.
Reading the market and trying to plan an approach to finishing lambs in the coming months that takes account of the physical condition of lambs, what will happen to the trade and the cost of supplementary feed is the challenge facing all finishers.
What's becoming clear is that a field full of lambs ticking along on late autumn grass is likely to include a far greater variance in terms of levels of finish than would be the norm. While this may not be immediately apparent from simply looking at the lambs, handling them will undoubtedly produce some revelations.
And if ever a season called for a strict approach to handling and drawing lambs, it's this one, says Steve Powdrill, national lamb selection specialist with EBLEX.
"From a situation at the start of the season where lambs were three weeks ahead on growth, we've now got lambs that have struggled through months of bad weather and are grazing oceans of wet grass that's got very little in it to help them grow.
"This grass is deceiving; there's a lot of it and in a season where feed prices are rocketing it's tempting to think it can do the job. But it can't and a lot of lambs are now going backwards. Lambs with thick docks, but losing flesh off their backs show the tell-tail signs of condition loss," says Mr Powdrill.
Late October primestock markets were showing clear signs of producers off-loading lambs they weren't prepared to buy feed for. But are they good enough to find buyers around the fat ring?
Prime lamb marketings increased by 33% during the third week in October, with larger numbers of underfinished, lighter-weight lambs producing a combined downward effect on prices.
"Timely and orderly marketing is certainly going to be important this season," says Mr Powdrill. "As well as high feed costs and lower lamb prices there are so many unknowns about what will happen to the trade during the winter.
"But despite all of this there's still an incentive to finish lambs properly with supplementary feed to achieve a good killing-out percentage and hit the optimum spec at the best price.
"The challenge will be not to over-finish lambs by assuming all the lambs in a batch are in the same condition. Lambs should be drawn and handled - not just weighed - and split accordingly so that forward lambs can be finished and sold as a priority as soon as they're ready. The aim must be to avoid feeding lambs that don't need it," he adds.
Plan the marketing of lambs
EBLEX advises producers to have discussions with their auctioneers or deadweight fieldsmen about how best to plan the marketing of their lambs in the coming weeks. And if producers aren't prepared to feed a finishing ration for long enough to achieve their usual weights, selling lambs as stores may be a better option this year.
"Any decision not to sell before Christmas and to defer marketing until the new year must be taken carefully. Lambs that are forced to take a check and put on hold until January can lose some quality within the carcass. And if we see a lot of producers withdraw from selling now, there's going to be a glut of hoggs."
ADAS sheep adviser Kate Phillips says dry matter levels of this autumn's grass are exceptionally low, making it difficult for lambs to achieve adequate intakes to attain an acceptable weight gain.
"Very few lambs are on ad-lib concentrates to make up for the shortfalls in grass dry matter. Some grazed grass is providing only 13% dry matter, but very high protein - about 24%. At that level of dry matter lambs find it hard because they have to eat so much."
Although the energy levels of grass are probably adequate this autumn, the high level of low dry matter grass lambs must consume to gain weight is the issue.
"Providing lambs with additional forage - hay or silage - is an option to offset the poor-quality grass, but with the cost of feed heading towards £250/tonne it's making it very difficult for finishers. There are a few alternatives, but they are scarce," says Mrs Phillips.
"Wheat feed may be worth considering. It's a dry feed, but it's not high in energy - 11.5-11.9% - and has about 17% protein. But it could be mixed with barley or other cereals to create a lower-cost diet.
"Store lamb buyers who would normally buy lambs now, turn them out on to grass and perhaps not really think about doing anything with them until the new year, need to be very aware that there's a lot less feed value in the grass this year than normal. Instead of ticking over, they may find their lambs have suffered a check in growth," says Mrs Phillips.
Lambs grazing good grass can achieve weight gains of 80g a day without supplementary feeding, but that's unlikely to be achieved off grass this season.
And Mrs Phillips says lamb performance may be hit indirectly this autumn - not by diet, but by disease.
"We're having classic weather conditions for pasturella, so it's essential to vaccinate. Lambs that are underfed because of the poor grass quality will drop like flies if they contract pasturella. And it's important to consider trace elements too and ensure cobalt is available. If lambs are short of cobalt they can't use their diet properly and will spiral downwards quite rapidly."
More on this topic
Watch a video about how to assess lambs for slaughter