Consistently producing top quality prime lambs to meet the needs of the discerning local butcher and catering trade can be difficult to sustain. But a North Yorkshire sheep producer is determined to supply this market and is breeding and feeding lambs specifically for the job.

He is finishing lambs on an unconventional diet of ad-lib rolled barley and although using a high proportion of first and second cross Texel ewes in the flock, any reduction in lambing percentage is being more then compensated for by the higher value of the lambs produced.

Although the bulk of this flock’s annual output of 500 prime lambs is targeted at the late spring hogget trade – and the entire management system is geared to late season marketing – an early draw of its April-born Texel-cross lambs was sold straight off grass in early October.

Achieving quality

With no supplementary feeding these lambs weighed up to 52kg and topped the day’s trade at 117p/kg. “The aim is to produce the right type of lamb with the ability to achieve the conformation, performance and carcass quality capable of earning premium prices from the catering market and the local butcher trade.”

That’s how North Yorkshire beef and sheep producer Tim Parkinson sums up the prime lamb output from his flock of 350 Texel-cross ewes run at Thirlby, Thirsk. Based on Mule ewes for the first cross with the Texel, it is three-quarter-bred Texel ewes put back again to a Texel that produce most of the flock’s best lambs.

HEAVY LAMB FINISHING
  • Barley-based diet
  • High value lamb
  • Grass reliant
  • Well-shaped ewes

Texel rams, unregistered and with some Beltex breeding, are bought from Peak District producer Martin Shaw. Tups are turned out in mid-November for a mid-April lambing ewes are not housed, but are supplemented with silage around Christmas time.

“Although we aren’t lambing until April, we like to start giving ewes a handful of feed from early February. We step up feeding until lambing, but give nothing once ewes have lambed. We rely totally on grass.”

Hardy and easy lambing and with no loss of milkiness, Texel cross ewes produce the type of lamb ideally suited to the farm’s feeding and marketing systems. But there are fewer lambs. Compared with Mules at 200%, the Texel crosses achieve 170% in a good year, while the norm is 150%.

“While we’re losing numbers of lambs we’re still gaining on overall income through the higher value of the lambs we sell. One-and-a-half lambs at £75 a lamb is better than two lambs at £40 a lamb,” reckons Mr Parkinson.

Ready for sale

Lambs are weaned in late September and that is the first time any are drawn for sale. “We don’t consider selling anything before then. Any lambs ready by early October are a bonus for me because my main selling period is late spring.”

After weaning this autumn, a batch was drawn off grass. “For lambs born from 20 April and to reach 52kg by early October and make 117p/kg straight off grass is pretty good going. And we had some smart, smaller lambs weighing 41kg at £50,” adds Mr Parkinson.

Most of the 500 lambs on the farm in late October will be aimed at the late spring hogget market – apart from some pulled out for the Christmas trade.

The key to managing the long-keep lambs will be to tick them over without losing too much flesh in the coming months. Silage will be offered as soon as grass quality deteriorates followed by feed blocks, but trough feeding won’t start until after Christmas.

Finishing diet

This is a system based on lambs bred to respond well to feeding, but the finishing diet will certainly raise eyebrows among conventional lamb finishers. It’s simply rolled barley with a 50% protein supplement based on urea. Additional copper is fed for the first three weeks of the finishing period.

The mix comprises 900kg rolled barley, 75kg protein supplement and 25kg molasses. It is initially fed in troughs to appetite and then switched to ad lib via a creep feeder.

“I know everyone says you can’t feed ad-lib barley to lambs and particularly not with added urea, but we’ve been careful and have had no problems.” Spring hoggets will be targeted to reach 45-55kg costing about £10 a head to finish.