Selecting lambs at the optimum time becomes ever more
important as margins throughout the food chain are
squeezed. Jeremy Hunt spoke to one North Yorks lamb
buyer and producer about the latest market requirements
IMPROVING methods of on-farm prime lamb selection will not only yield financial benefits to producers, but will contribute to the overall stability of the UK lamb market, according to North Yorks-based lamb buyer and producer Andrew Atkinson.
"Its vital the wholesale trade remains viable and lamb producers can make a major contribution to that by supplying it with exactly what it has a market for. Abattoirs and the wholesale trade are fundamental parts of the marketing chain that must be maintained.
"Producers should be under no misapprehension about the tight margins, rocketing overheads and bureaucracy faced by wholesalers and abattoirs.
"If they cannot sustain a viable business and profits start to slump they will get out."
Reducing the numbers of lambs offered to the trade that fail to meet major supermarket buyers specifications should be a priority for all lamb producers this season, believes Mr Atkinson.
"These lambs have less saleability and leave a lower margin for the wholesaler, creating additional financial pressure at the lamb trades core."
He procures prime lambs for two north Wales abattoirs, buying at markets in the north of England and directly off farms. Most lambs are bound for the shelves of Tesco and Marks & Spencer as well as the export trade.
But Mr Atkinson is well aware of the lamb markets vagaries. Last winter, on his farm near Harrogate, he finished several thousand store lambs.
"They were bought at the right price in autumn and sold on a good trade in March and April, but left little profit.
"The lamb trade is fickle, which makes it even more important for producers to draw lambs as often as they can. Lambs that are approaching being ready to sell should be handled twice a week, not once."
Room for improvement
He maintains there is still much room for improvement in the way prime lambs are marketed. Despite years of work by MLC to improve methods of prime lamb selection, Mr Atkinson reckons many producers are still unclear about how to relate a live lamb to its actual carcass specification.
"Over the years, the MLC has been driving home the message things have changed, but Im not sure whether enough producers realise that. The days of the ultra-lean lamb are over. The trade now needs a lamb with more cover – not fat – but certainly carrying more finish than we were seeing five years ago."
Mr Atkinson says he cant blame any producer for selling their lambs when trade is strong and prices are high. But he believes more producers should take time to follow a batch of lambs through the abattoir. "Its in their interests to do this because they will learn invaluable lessons about lamb selection. I know everyone is under pressure, but it is time well spent."
The modern lamb market is short of prime lambs carrying sufficient finish. The lean 16-17kg lamb of five years ago is no longer wanted; a well finished 20kg lamb is in demand.
"The ultra-lean carcass is a thing of the past. We are not talking about a 4H or a 5, but most abattoirs I deal with want a 3L and 3H lamb. The meat holds up better on a lamb with more finish; it lasts longer and looks a much better product in consumers eyes.
"Its a fine line between getting it wrong and getting it right, but the more often producers can handle their lambs the better."
He expects the good lambing time and ample mid-summer grass in most regions will bring large numbers of top quality lambs on to the market this season. "Nobody can predict the trade over the coming months, but I think we may see a surge of small hill lambs coming forward in October and November as a result of the favourable spring lambing conditions in hill and upland flocks."
However, despite all the effort that has been put into performance recording of the terminal sire breeds, Mr Atkinson says he has noticed no marked improvement in UK prime lamb quality. "Performance may have improved, but not enough prime lamb producers have mastered selection skills. The genetics may be there, but presenting lambs to the trade at exactly the right time is critical."
Welsh lamb producers come in for praise from Mr Atkinson. "They seem to have got the job sorted. There has been a big improvement in quality of prime lamb coming out of Wales. The Welsh Mule has done a great job for them.
"Producers have also used Continental terminal sires and retained some Continental cross ewes, helping conformation."
But an improvement in quality of prime lambs coming off northern hill farms is on the cards. He anticipates significant changes as more flockmasters run terminal sires with Swaledale flocks.
"There is great scope for North Country hill farms to produce a higher value lamb. Therell probably be a swing away from the large numbers of Swaledale ewes that have been used to produce Mules. More terminal sires will be used in hill flocks where producers are looking for a higher value slaughter lamb than the Mule wether." *
The market requires heavier lambs carrying more finish than five years ago, says Andrew Atkinson.
• Draw frequently.
• Follow through abattoir.
• Heavier lambs required.