Larger lambs are worth more a head but command a lower price a kilo, so producers need to work out the cost of finishing them to assess whether it really pays.
On average, 19-20kg lambs grading R3L would serve 80% of the market, with butchers happy to take slightly larger animals, said Katie Thorley, senior knowledge transfer manager at AHDB.
“The key is to work out the cost of finishing them to those heavier weights – is it worth it? A lamb is only prime once, so handle them weekly if possible, weigh them and put your hands on them.
It doesn’t take much to tip a 3L into a 3H or a 4 class, so send lambs as soon as they are fit,” she added.
One Leicestershire farmer would like to see on-site graders in all livestock markets to pull out overfat or lean lambs, to encourage producers to better meet the target specification.
Ros Turner keeps just over 300 breeding ewes at Redland Farm, Melton Mowbray and sells her lambs direct to the public through a box scheme and live at the local market.
She can’t see why producers are being rewarded with higher prices for large, overfat lambs at market when the customer wants a smaller, leaner one.
“What’s the point of selling a lamb and then the processor cutting the fat off – it’s ludicrous,” she said.
“We’re encouraged to produce more lambs to meet the market specification of E, U, and R grades at 2-3L fat class, but are often getting a higher price per head for the bigger, fatter lambs.
“It’s the wrong message – the lambs that meet the market spec should be getting the highest price.”
According to Mrs Turner, producers should be encouraging more people to eat lamb by supplying the product they want.
“I would like to see all markets have a grader in place to mark out exceptionally lean or fat lambs and send the right message to the farmer.”
Andy Offer also sells meat direct to the public from Whyle House, Pudleston, Herefordshire, and typically aims for R2 and R3L grades at 18-20kg deadweight.
“But the last ones I sold at market were at least R3H or R4 – to me that is overfinished but they sold extremely well,” he said.
“My customers don’t want lots of fat or large chops and legs of lamb, so I’m intrigued as to why the trade is demanding lambs I know our consumers don’t want.”
Chris Dodds, executive secretary at the Livestock Auctioneers’ Association, admitted there could be scope for more graders in markets.
“A lot of markets do have people that select lambs, but I’ve no doubt that some could do a little more in the selection process.”
However, the sheep market is far larger than supermarkets alone, with different buyers requiring different specifications, he added.
“As auctioneers, we are selling live animals to the best of their advantage – we can’t penalise people over and above what buyers are prepared to pay.”