14 September 2001

Light lamb future options

By Richard Allison

WITH tupping only weeks away, uncertainty over export markets restarting and the lack of a government funded disposal scheme next year are forcing sheep producers to re-assess breeding plans.

Producers have already received a letter from the Intervention Board warning that the current light lamb welfare disposal scheme will not be repeated next year, even with an export ban still in place. However, it assures that breeding ewes without lambs next summer remain eligible for sheep annual premium payments.

This implies producers should consider not breeding ewes this year, according to a report in The Sunday Telegraph.

But, without lambing ewes, what do they expect producers to live on in the following year, asks Moss Jones of the Welsh Mountain Breed Society. "They will have no stock to sell and will, therefore, lose a whole years income.

"Its a gamble, if you decide not to breed and exports are resumed in time, you will miss out."

In addition, most hill producers rely on keeping a proportion of purebred light lambs as replacements, he adds. "Deciding not to breed ewes will change the profile of flocks, leading to future problems," warns Mr Moss.

There are other options, says the MLCs head of sheep strategy David Croston. "But carefully consider each one and its long term implications".

One option is crossbreeding ewes with heavier, terminal sires this autumn. There is extensive research showing the value of using crossbreeding to improve carcass quality, he says.

An ADAS Pwllpeiran trial shows how using Texel and Dorset Down rams can increase Welsh Mountain lamb weights. Last year, more than 70% of purebred lambs weighed less than 14kg, but this seasons crossbred lambs already weigh 35kg, meeting UK market specifications (see Livestock, Sept 7).

Similar research at Teagascs Athenry centre also demonstrates these benefits when crossbreeding Scottish Blackface and Cheviot ewes with heavier breeds.

But heavier type rams are difficult to find, says Alastair Davy, Swaledale producer and spokesman for the Hill Farming Initiative. "Even when you manage to buy them, they cannot be moved in many areas of the UK due to foot-and-mouth restrictions."

Crossbreeding already happens in some flocks, says Mr Jones. "The main problem with it is having fewer bloodlines and a limited numbers of rams available."

Another option is breeding a proportion of the flock and leaving some ewes empty. This will allow lambs to be finished at heavier weights, as extra grass will be available at a lowered stocking rate, explains Mr Jones.

Changing lamb finishing policy could be worthwhile, believes Mr Croston. "Swaledale and Blackface lambs can be fattened over winter to reach reasonable weights the following spring."

Some producers are already keeping light lambs for longer as there is no commercial advantage accepting £10/lamb on the light lamb welfare disposal scheme, he adds.

However, fattening lambs to heavier weights depends on resources available and Mr Jones believes it is not an option for some breeds, such as Welsh Mountain.

Without any cash-flow, other producers are being forced into finishing this years breeding stock, explains Mr Davy. "These flocks will take some time to recover once exports are resumed, reducing income for some years."

Many producers are using this winters forage now and are facing feed shortages, adds Mr Davy. "In addition, many upland farms do not have the facilities or winter keep to fatten lambs over the coming winter, so they will have to go into the disposal scheme."

Mr Jones adds that whatever decision is made, it will have longer term effects and these must be carefully calculated. "We dont even know what effect culling lambs this autumn will have on lamb numbers next autumn." &#42

LAMBSOLUTIONS

&#8226 Finish lambs heavier.

&#8226 Cross with terminal sires.

&#8226 Dont breed this autumn.