Prime hogget producers will be hoping the New Year will keep prices well above 1/kg through the rest of the winter and into spring.

Farmers about to turn their autumn-bought store lambs into meaty hoggets are gaining some encouragement from the lift in prime lamb values in the run up to Christmas.

At the start of 2005, hogget prices were lower than expected, although by March many marts were seeing liveweight values rise to about 130p/kg for 40-44kg sheep.

The new season spring lamb trade kicked off well and saw the emergence of a new market for lightweight export lambs weighing 29-33kg.

At some northern centres, these lambs were making 55-60 apiece until late May, with even heavier lambs weighing up to 35kg making 50 a head.

A good lamb crop brought a bonus to some producers.

Spare lambs reared on the milk machine are not usually the most profitable, but this year some flocks found a niche export market for these teat-reared lambs.

Around the country the midsummer trade for lambs out of Mule and halfbred ewes remained good, with 30kg lambs realising about 40 a head, up on 2004.

But from mid-June, trade started to slip and within a month most centres saw volume marketings and values fell to just 1/kg.

After months of better prices compared with the year before, prices fell below 1/kg and didn’t breach this for most of the autumn.

Cumbria farmer Stephen Graham of Gilsland is not expecting any big price lift in the New Year because he reckons there is no suggestion that numbers will be tight.

“Compared with 2004 when we were making around 54 for lambs, the 2005 autumn saw us averaging 48 with the best up to 52 a head.

We have been about 6 a head down and I can’t see much improvement in the New Year,” he said.

Sheep auctioneer Stuart Bell, who runs Harrison and Hetherington’s Kirkby Stephen mart in Cumbria, was encouraged to see values lift marginally above 1/kg in the weeks before Christmas.

He remains confident this year’s hogget trade will earn a reasonable return for finishers, but does not predict prices will take off.

“I am confident we will see values remain at over 1/kg into the New Year and although I don’t think we are heading for a hogget bonanza, I think the trade will be acceptable to most,” he said.

Auctioneers agree that prime lambs offered to the meat trade are far more uniform than they were 10 years ago and that farmers have improved their skills in drawing and batching prime lambs.

But apart from those producers involved in direct selling or groups marketing branded lamb, the volume supplies bought for the supermarket trade are not commanding any premium despite producers’ efforts at meeting supermarket specifications.

Alastair Sneddon, of auctioneer Bagshaws’ Bakewell market, hopes the lift in prime lamb values before Christmas will augur well for the New Year hogget trade.

“It has not been a bumper year for sheep producers, but I am upbeat about the hogget trade for this season and hope that we have left the 1/kg level well behind us.”

jh@jeremyhuntassociates.com