5 December 1997

Late lambing makes sense

Sheep producers tempted

to produce organic lamb –

currently attracting 10%

premiums – should also

consider May lambing.

Sue Rider reports

LOW variable costs and demand for feed matching peak clover growth make May lambing ideal for anyone considering organic production.

By lambing later its possible to avoid feeding concentrates which are more expensive when organic – and grass/clover is at maximum production to support lactating ewes and lambs.

Its a system which works well for Wiltshire producer Mark Houghton-Brown, who runs a mixed organic farm of 728ha (1800 acres).

He told over 50 sheep producers at an autumn meeting of the SAC/Signet May Lambing Group at his Lower Pertwood Farm, Hindon, Salisbury, that May lambing was the best system for anyone keen to cash in on 10% premiums available for organic lamb.

"Ive found May the most profitable time to lamb – and our shepherd Tim finds it the easiest time." Mr Houghton-Brown admitted that May lambing flocks wouldnt produce as many lambs – but costs were much lower. "We dont feed the ewes any concentrates, and havent wormed them for seven years."

In line with Soil Association guidelines, stock are treated only when necessary. "We can worm the ewes annually before lambing – but I dont even do that – and can treat lambs if there are any difficulties."

To reduce risk of worm contamination, lambs – born from the third week of April – go out onto clean grazing. "We used to worm everything once a month but, now were organic, only about 5% of lambs are treated," said Mr Houghton-Brown.

He practices drift lambing – leaving the ewe and her lamb in the spot where she lambs for 24-48 hours for mothering up, and moving into a different paddock any sheep still to lamb.

After lambing, ewes and lambs are set stocked at an average 1/ha (2.5/acre). "We then fatten lambs on new grass/clover leys, mustard or stubble turnips," he explains

Finished lambs are marketed to Sainsbury – which sponsored the open day – through abattoir Lloyd Maunders (see panel).

Although supermarkets wanted it, Mr Houghton-Brown said it would be tricky for farmers to produce lamb organically during May and June. He started selling to Lloyd Maunders in October.

Lloyd Maunderss carcass specification seeks conformation of R or better, and fat class of 2, 3L or 3H at 15-21kg deadweight. "We will drop to 14kg but will not go beyond 21kg," said John Bailey of Lloyd Maunders. "This is our cut off – go beyond it and joints would become too big and unit price rises above that which consumers are prepared to pay," he told the meeting.

Current premiums are more than 10% for organic lamb due to limited supplies – he was paying a 30p/kg premium for best quality lamb, 25p/kg on medium quality carcasses.

Mr Houghton-Brown admitted that he does have difficulties keeping lambs finished off clover swards to below 21kg deadweight.

"Its all about getting the breed right," he explained. He has been using Charollais tups on Mules. Conformation was good but the lambs too big.

For this reason, the Mule flock is gradually being replaced with a closed MV accredited flock of Llyens and Wiltshire Horns – which are being selected for improved production. The Llyen should produce a smaller lamb while maintaining eating quality, he adds. Currently there are 300 Mules, 120 Wiltshires and 150 Lleyns.

Prolificacy of the Wiltshires – a rare breed chosen because its native to the area – has improved in three years from 130% to 160%. Because the breed sheds its fleece naturally, its also less prone to strike, and less likely to get scab.

Mr Houghton-Brown hasnt vaccinated ewes against clostridial disease for many years and by running a closed flock should ensure that flock health concerns are minimised.

He advised farmers considering organic production to first seek professional advice from MAFFs organic conversion information service (see box opposite). Free visits were available from Berks-based Elm Farm Research Centre who he used as consultants.

"They are looking at May lambing as the easiest and most straightforward way of going into organic sheep farming," he said.

MARKET BOOMING FOR ORGANIC LAMB

Organic lamb is currently earning premiums of more than 10% and according to south-west abattoir Lloyd Maunders it could pay premiums of that order for the next five to eight years.

"Theres huge potential for more organic lamb," John Bailey of Lloyd Maunders, who has been taking 80 lambs a week for the last 10 weeks from Lower Pertwood, told the meeting.

"Were looking for 300-400 organic lambs a week throughout the year – and if producers could supply them, premiums in the order of 10% would be there for at least the next five to eight years."

"If we could take 200-400 lambs a week we could roll out to more stores and expand the market," he said. He was sending 120 lambs a week into 20 Sainsbury stores in the flush of the season but could do with a lot more.

Seasonality of supply was the main difficulty, explained Mr Bailey, with shortages of organic lamb in May, June and July. "We could confidently pay £50 for a 15-16kg organic lamb carcass at the end of April/May/June and July – well take whatever youve got. If its 200 a week, Ill take them."

TIME TO GET SERIOUS

Its time UK farmers took organic lamb seriously, suggested SAC sheep specialist John Vipond, speaking at the meeting.

"If were serious about producing organic lamb in Britain, we must work with the stratification system," explained Dr Vipond. Currently the one unit was trying to do everything. But there were a huge number of hill wether lambs which almost had organic status and were being wasted, he said.

"Most lambs are off hill and upland pasture which gets no fertiliser – making them organic would be relatively easy."

With organic aid, and increased demand for organic produce, there was huge potential – but that could only be realised by tying in with the stratification system whereby the by-products of the hill could also be finished organically on lowland farms.

There was potential for the increasing number of lowland arable/vegetable organic farms to take in organic lambs from the uplands and finish them on by-products/brassicas.

Dr Vipond said financial help for conversion was available from the UK organic aid scheme – but this was only a quarter of the EU average.

"If this situation was addressed, producers could go into organic production without it costing them a lot of money."

He was concerned that many livestock farmers had overlooked the fact that although the aid scheme provided payments over five years for converting land to organic production, it did not necessarily require production of organic livestock.

ORGANIC HELP

Free advice on organic conversion is available by contacting the Organic Helpline (0117-9227707). MAFF will send you its organic conversion information service booklet, and you can apply for one-and-a-half days worth of free advisory visits.

ORGANIC LAMB

&#8226 Premiums of more than 10%.

&#8226 May lambing well suited.

&#8226 Must fit stratification.

Premiums of 10% are available for the next five to eight years …John Bailey.

Wiltshire Horns are suited to the open country of Salisbury Plain…and to organic production which prohibits routine preventative treatments because, with no fleece, risk of scab and fly strike is reduced.

Clover swards are an ideal basis for organic production – and also suit May lambing – SAC.

ORGANIC LAMB

&#8226 Premiums of more than 10%.

&#8226 May lambing well suited.

&#8226 Must fit stratification systems.

MARKET BOOMING FOR ORGANIC LAMB

Organic lamb is currently earning premiums of more than 10% and according to south-west abattoir Lloyd Maunders it could pay premiums of that order for the next five to eight years.

"Theres huge potential for more organic lamb," John Bailey of Lloyd Maunders, who has been taking 80 lambs a week for the last 10 weeks from Lower Pertwood, told the meeting.

"Were looking for 300-400 organic lambs a week throughout the year – and if producers could supply them, premiums in the order of 10% would be there for at least the next five to eight years."

"If we could take 200-400 lambs a week we could roll out to more stores and expand the market," he said. He was sending 120 lambs a week into 20 Sainsbury stores in the flush of the season but could do with a lot more.

Seasonality of supply was the main difficulty, explained Mr Bailey, with shortages of organic lamb in May, June and July. "We could confidently pay £50 for a 15-16kg organic lamb carcass at the end of April/May/June and July – well take whatever youve got. If its 200 a week, Ill take them."

ORGANIC HELP

Free advice on organic conversion is available by contacting the Organic Helpline (0117-9227707). MAFF will send you its organic conversion information service booklet, and you can apply for one-and-a-half days worth of free advisory visits.

FLOCK PERFORMANCE

(£/ewe for 1996)

&#8226 Lower pertwood output of £83, less variable costs of £9.4, fixed costs of £15.4, leaves gross margin of £73.60 and enterprise margin of £33.

TIME TO GET SERIOUS

Its time UK farmers took organic lamb seriously, suggested SAC sheep specialist John Vipond, speaking at the meeting.

"If were serious about producing organic lamb in Britain, we must work with the stratification system," explained Dr Vipond. Currently the one unit was trying to do everything. But there were a huge number of hill wether lambs which almost had organic status and were being wasted, he said.

"Most lambs are off hill and upland pasture which gets no fertiliser – making them organic would be relatively easy."

With organic aid, and increased demand for organic produce, there was huge potential – but that could only be realised by tying in with the stratification system whereby the by-products of the hill could be finished organically on lowland farms.

There was potential for the increasing number of lowland arable/vegetable organic farms to take in organic lambs from the uplands and finish them on by-products/brassicas.

Dr Vipond said financial help for conversion was available from the UK organic aid scheme – but this was only a quarter of the EU average.

"If this situation was addressed, producers could go into organic production without it costing them a lot of money."

He was concerned that many livestock farmers had overlooked the fact that although the aid scheme provided payments over five years for converting land to organic production, it did not necessarily require production of organic livestock.