20 February 1998

Average of 107p/kg for spring lamb is soul destroying

FARMERS selling spring lambs havent got much to look forward to this season.

Small quantities are still arriving in markets – but a similar price picture to hoggets is emerging, with values well down on last year.

Exeter, the countrys earliest mart, saw an entry of 185 on Monday. The average price of 107p/kg compares with 153p/kg at the corresponding point in 1997 – a fall of nearly £18 a head on a 38kg animal.

"Producers are disappointed," says auctioneer Alan Venner. "Even back in 1993, the average at this time was 127p/kg."

Butchers and small retail outlets are buying, says Mr Venner, but the supermarkets wont start buying until supplies are more plentiful – probably in May.

Meanwhile, numbers will build up quickly. Exeters weekly offering, for example, is expected to reach 300 by the end of the month and top 2000 in May.

"Soul-destroying," says Devon farmer Charles Mortimer, having sold his first batch on Monday. At 19.5kg, they averaged just under £45. They ought, says Mr Mortimer, to be nearer £65, bearing in mind the lower-lambing percentage and high costs associated with the system.

If hogget quality deteriorates – and the supermarkets suddenly switch to buying lambs – prices could get a boost. But Mr Mortimers not optimistic.

The strength of sterling, which has so hit the hogget trade, has had a knock-on effect. "If there was a strong export trade, hoggets could be £15 a head dearer – and new-season lamb should always fetch a premium."

At these levels it probably costs less than New Zealand product, by the time its "killed, chilled and shipped halfway round the world".

David Mortimer, who also farms near Exeter, made £41 on the 19.5kg lambs he sold this week. "Theres no money in that by the time youve paid a shepherd and bought feed," says Mr Mortimer.

Good weather has meant the lambs have "done" well recently and several batches will be ready for sale over the next few weeks. "We cant keep them – once they get to 19.5kg dw, they have to go."

And its not, says Mr Mortimer, as if other enterprises are bolstering the bottom line. He sold two finished heifers this week – one, at 610kg, made 80p/kg; the other, at 595kg, went for 82p/kg.

New-season lambs are worth a lot less than a year ago – the sign of things to come, say farmers and auctioneers.