Backlog of lambs wait for market
By Tim Relf
A BIG backlog of lambs is building nationwide, with advice to sell sheep early appearing to have gone unheeded.
Fears have been raised that a repeat of last years experiences could be looming, when poor prices prompted farmers to delay selling – only to find a flooded post-Christmas market.
Early October data shows slaughterings below the levels of a year earlier, according to the Meat and Livestock Commission. And there were more animals to begin with, with MAFFs June census putting lamb numbers up 6%.
Farmers, however, blame the weather for slowing the progress of stock. Marketings have not, they say, been delayed in the hope values will rise.
Devon producer Richard Burston says: "People are hanging on to them because they cant finish them. Its not been a conscious decision – its just plain lack of sunshine."
The big question now, he says, is whether to put extra feed in to them, aiming for the pre-Christmas market or put them on a slower and cheaper regime. "Its a juggling act – we dont know what the end price will be until we get there."
Essex farmer Gerald Ketley says everyone is "shaky" after last years experiences. Back then, people hung on to stock, thinking prices would get better. "But there was nothing to make them get better."
There may, however, be less inclination to delay selling this winter because animals were bought cheaper, leaving more room for margin even at current values. Stores which would have cost £30-plus last season have been in the £20s this year, says Mr Ketley.
MLC economist Tony Fowler stresses that holding on to sheep is a "marketing mistake". But time is running out, he says, with autumn advancing and marketings down on last year.
The situation is a surprise, says Mr Fowler, with the "boomerang" effect usually seen.
"Usually after a year when there is a big carry-over and awful prices, people try to do their marketing earlier."
A factor in the equation, however, is that prices are even lower than 12 months ago. On Monday at markets in England and Wales, the average was less than 68p/kg lw, a fall of 5.5p on the week before.
John Thorley, chief executive of the National Sheep Association says the weaker £ sterling, Brussels Aid to Private Storage scheme and the resumption of whole-ewe carcass exports are encouraging factors.
"Good news," he says of Asdas decision to give New Zealand chilled lamb the chop this winter in favour of British product.
Such sentiments dont, however, quite stretch to optimism. Not for the immediate future, anyway. But Mr Thorley does say: "There are grounds for less pessimism in the short-term."
There is, however, more reason for confidence in the medium and long-term. "The future of the sheep industry is as sound as a bell," he says.
"We have not got the stocks over-hanging the industry that the beef business does." *