30 October 1998

Informality and a free sales policy pays off in Norfolk

In the second of our series

on farmer-run marketing

groups we look at a Norfolk

lamb group that succeeds

because of its

informal nature.

James Garner reports

A LOOSE selling arrangement and good organisation are the main reasons why the newly formed Norfolk Lamb Group is thriving.

Unlike many marketing co-ops, it works as a free selling group, not requiring any formal commitment.

It began trading this February, with Mike McCoy, a contract shepherd based in Downham Market, organising loads and driving a lorry for the group to the abattoir.

The idea, however, came from John Robinson, Crossways Farm, North Creake, Fakenham, who is a founder member. "I mentioned forming a marketing group to Mike when he was working over here. Because of his job I thought he would be well placed to get a number of people together to market lambs."

Fewer live markets in East Anglia, increasing transport costs and the time involved to selling to live markets were reasons for beginning the group. Also, some livestock dealers in Norfolk were known to be taking lambs north to sell for higher prices, says Mr Robinson. "We were selling on an ad hoc basis before and needed some structure but without any formal basis."

Since February the groups 10 regular producers have sold more than 4200 lambs and would like to move 6000 next year. This increase will be met from within the group. "Were happy with its size – its manageable and informal," says Mr Robinson.

Its a loose arrangement; there are no joining costs and no member of the group has to sell lambs through it, says Mr McCoy. "We offer a price per lamb that includes grading which I generally carry out, although the producer can do it if he likes."

In practice, Mr McCoy grades most of the groups lambs, which means a more uniform product is offered for sale. "Producers tend to grade lambs as they want them to grade. Where I do it, its more objective and we get a standard product.

"It also easier to deal with any complaints from the abattoir, because its only me who has to change and thats easier to rectify," he says.

Of last seasons lambs sold there were only six P grade carcasses, which testifies to Mr McCoys ability of picking fit lambs. "I only pick lambs on one day of the week. Group members need to be close together to make it work and everything has to be ready when I get there – they are normally in the yard waiting for me."

"Lambs are taken to the suppliers abattoir the night before and killed next morning, which is less stressful for them. There have been no complaints about lairage times; some batches of spring lambs had a killing out percentage over 50%," he says.

Lambs are marketed through a large northern-based independent buyer. "He finds a market for a large number of lambs, so we book our numbers in with him. Weve never been in the situation where we have to make a load up, because we know how many we have to sell," says Mr McCoy.

Each member is charged £1.62 a lamb sold. This includes 90% insurance cover for bad debt recovery, MLC levy and Mr McCoys grading charge. "We never quote a price, although we have a rough idea what we will be paid. We leave it to our buyer to source the best price he can find.

"Haulage is included in the price, so members can make direct comparisons from week to week. Each member receives their own grading sheet, which is faxed the next day and payments are made within 10 days," he says.

"The group begins selling hoggets after Christmas and then sells early spring lambs through to whenever the price drops off. Whats left are stored and sold later in the year."

Lambs are graded on a standard MLC carcass grid with lamb slaughter weights from 15-21.5kg. The standard price is paid on O and R, 2 and 3L grade carcasses. Most of the group are running Mule-based lowland flocks and achieve standard grades of R3L, and an average carcass weight 19kg, he explains.

Currently about half of the group members are FABBL registered, says Mr McCoy. "Its not a pre-requisite but it will become one and some members of the group are less happy about this. But it makes selling lambs easier as there are more outlets," he says.

There are no immediate plans to expand activities into a purchasing group although group members have not dismissed it, says Mr Robinson. "It would add extra administration which makes for more complications, but we will have to see what develops," he says.

"We like the size the group has developed into. To be honest we dont want any more members, but I think its a good pointer to other producers that an informal arrangement like this can still work," says Mr Robinson.

POLICYPOINTERS

&#8226 No selling commitment.

&#8226 Standard product.

&#8226 Cheaper marketing.

&#8226 Small number of local members.

Selling lambs through the Norfolk Lamb Group works well, says founder group member John Robinson (right), with organiser Mike McCoy.