23 June 1995

Drawing lambs in even groups pays at market

Correct drawing of lambs, including on-farm weight grading, boosts market returns for one Oxfordshire farmer. Michael Gaisford reports

WEIGHT grading finished lambs on the farm into four groups before sending them to the local auction mart is paying dividends for one Oxfordshire farmer.

It is just part of a carefully planned finished lamb drawing programme practised by Robert Nunneley at 340ha (850-acre) Horton Grounds, Banbury, where he runs a flock 435 Mule ewes and the 60-head Ironstone flock of pedigree Suffolks.

Farming with his brother Timothy, who runs a 100-head dairy herd and barley beef unit, Mr Nunneley sends all his finished Suffolk x Mule lambs to the local mart at Banbury.

"I aim to sell about 700 lambs through the market by the end of June each year, and regularly get above the market average for them," he says. "I expect it, because we draw them correctly."

Drawing procedure really starts just after lambing in early March, when newly lambed ewes are divided into three separate flocks. Those with singles form flock 1, while flock 2 and flock 3 are formed from the balance of ewes with twins. Average lambing percentage is 175%.

First draw from flock 1 is when lambs are 10 weeks old, and from then a weekly draw is made from flock 1 and later from flock 2 and flock 3 on alternate weeks until all lambs have been sold.

By the end of last week 434 lambs had gone under the hammer at Banbury, including a batch of 162 sent which averaged just over 103p/kg against the sale average of 102.4p/kg for 6400 sold on June 15.

The drawing procedure is usually the day before the Thursday lamb auction at Banbury Stockyard. It consists of running the complete flock through a race at the farm, handling all likely lambs, which, if considered ready, are weighed and marked in one of four places down the back.

"Target is to send all lambs at between 35-40kg liveweight," explains Mr Nunneley.

But when it comes to marketing, that weight range is not precise enough for him or for the more discerning buyers at Banbury, so lambs weighing 40kg are spray-marked on the neck, 38kg lambs on the shoulder, 36kg lambs in the middle of the back and 34kg-35kg on the rump.

When they arrive at market they are then sorted into pens of 15 by the weight markings on them.

"By doing this buyers know that they are getting even batches of lambs," says Mr Nunneley.

Lamb auctioneers assistant at Banbury, Kate Sutton also stresses the importance of presenting even batches of lambs to buyers at the mart.

"Most farmers are getting better at it and we do sort lambs into weight groups for them as best we can before they are weighed," says Ms Sutton.

"But there are still those who cannot tell an overfat or lean lamb, do not bother to sort their lambs into weight groups and do not get the returns from the market that they should."

Mr Nunneley explains that when drawing lambs he feels them all for finish and condition at the base of the tail and across the shoulders.

"If their tails are not thick enough they are left for the next flock draw in two weeks," he explains.

He uses his very best pedigree Suffolk rams on the Mule ewes, which are bought at Hawes, Yorks. The Ironside Suffolk flock, run by his wife, Linda, and which participates in the breeds sire reference scheme is lambed in January. It is 50% naturally mated and 50% AId to some of the top Suffolk tups in Britain.

Mr Nunneley says selling his lambs liveweight through Banbury also helps him sell his pedigree Suffolk rams. "If Banbury was not so close I would probably sell them deadweight," he says.

He uses the Suffolk as a terminal sire in preference to Continental breeds because of the faster growth rate and earlier finishing at higher prices for the crossbred lambs they produce.

"Best price I received this year was 132p/kg on May 1," says Mr Nunneley.

"Texel and Charollais crosses just cannot compete on growth rate and dont get to the market as quickly as Suffolk crosses. They need to be kept longer and eat more creep feed," he adds.

He makes his own creep feed for lambs from home-grown whole barley, soya, fishmeal and molasses.

"It is a cheap and effective creep feed that we mix in the Keenan, which we also use for feeding a complete diet to ewes before they lamb indoors in early March," says Mr Nunneley.