7 January 2000

Local meat for local shops

Maintaining local abattoirs

is vital, believes one

Suffolk lamb producer.

James Garner reports

NO more than 100 miles from field to plate is the aim for lamb production at one Suffolk farm and gross margins suggest it may pay dividends as well.

Caroline Cranbrook keeps 320 Mule ewes at Great Glemham Farms, Saxmundham, but is also committee member for the CLA, for whom she champions the cause of saving locally produced meats.

Mid-February born lambs, finished off grass and creep, are slaughtered at Blakes medium-sized abattoir at Costessey, near Norwich, within 50 miles of Lady Cranbrooks farm.

"We sell through Bramfield Meats of Bramfield, Halesworth, Suffolk. Their chief buyer selects lambs and they go off the same day to Blakes, where they are put in lairage before being slaughtered. They then return to Bramfield Meats, where meat is sold to local butchers shops in the area."

The shops know what to expect from Great Glemham Farms lamb and they appreciate it, she says. They also like being able to tell their customers about its origins.

"Butchers tend to be extroverts and love to tell their customers where their meat comes from. What is nice about locally produced meats is that it is a short story, easily understandable and something customers want to hear." It provides them with traceability and reassurance, she says. Selling her meat locally returns little more money – average lamb sales and valuation price in 1998/99 was £42 – but it stops lambs travelling huge distances to supermarkets. "We get a good price and have fewer costs to pay than going to the local market."

Lamb sales may not be much higher than other flocks, but Signet costings show a gross margin of £53 a ewe this year, which is pretty good in the current climate, says Signet sheep consultant Sam Boon.

The secrets are low feed costs, a relatively high lambing percentage – 180% a ewe to the tup – and good lamb growth rates. Last years lambs were sold a week earlier than the year before, beginning on Apr 26.

Lady Cranbrook says this is because ewes came in fit and lambed well, but also because their unusual system promotes lamb growth. Ewes lamb in a big shed and are penned individually. Then they move to nursery pens, before transferring to larger pens. When enough space is cleared, lambs are encouraged to go out to grass and feed in creeps outside, while ewes remain inside.

Mr Boon says this works well because it makes the best of available grass. "There is not enough grass to turn both ewes and lambs out, so what early grass there is, is put to good use by lambs.

"Looking at creep use this year shows the intake of grass by lambs saved creep feed, making clear savings." He points out that lambs consumed only 60kg of creep a ewe, which for 1.6 lambs a ewe sold, is far less than you would expect on traditional intensive early lamb systems.

Costs are also kept low by grazing ewes on stubble turnips in winter, which postpones concentrate feeding by a month. Ewes do stay inside until mid-April, but appear to cope well with their lambs spending time outside.

One of Mr Boons concerns is that nematodirus worms could infect lambs because they are using the same sheds and pasture each year. But he says this is avoided because lambs go out early enough to avoid a nematodirus challenge.

The system is different to traditional early lamb finishing, but Lady Cranbrook says it has evolved from a more conventional approach. Previously, ewes lambed in March and were turned out with lambs on to 43ha (106 acres) of ESA grass, which would quickly run out.

"We get a late spring flush of grass, so turning ewes and lambs out in March means grass is eaten before it begins growing.

"We have had to feed hay at grass during summer, so were worried about grass lasting." To overcome this, they decided to move lambing forward to save pasture, and by hope there was enough grass for ewes at turnout, she said.

Lady Cranbrooks main concern is the whole operations sustainability. All food apart from protein is grown on farm, she says.

LAMBING SYSTEM

&#8226 Lambs outside.

&#8226 Creep feed at grass.

&#8226 Ewes remain inside.

MHS costs put smaller abattoirs at risk

SMALL and medium sized abattoirs are in danger of being lost if Meat Hygiene Services costs and charges cannot be repealed.

This will have a radical affect on locally produced meats, says Caroline Cranbrook of Great Glemham Farms. To illustrate this she cites the example of her local abattoir, Blakes of Costessey, where increasing vet inspection from part-time to full-time would escalate costs by £36,000 a year.

Despite the findings of the Pooley report on red tape in the meat industry, which recommends a reduced financial burden on low volume slaughterhouses, Pooley committee member and small cutting plant owner Bob Kennard says fast action is needed to keep smaller businesses viable. "Freezing charges for 25% vet supervision will do this. Invoices are coming through to abattoirs at 50% vet supervision, which is putting a number of plants out of business."

Despite endorsing the main report of the Pooley working group, Mr Kennard does not agree with its proposals on charging.

He says a proposal for a cap on total charges for small and medium volume abattoirs remains unfair. "It is not a commercial cost of production that can be driven down by efficiency and economies of scale. MHS charges are a tax and therefore should be fair, which currently they are not."

In the interests of local meats, Lady Cranbrook hopes MAFF will shelve plans to increase veterinary supervision. Local produce, especially meat, is under threat if MAFF continues its plans to implement costs in slaughterhouses, she warns.

But Lady Cranbrook says food scares may have changed public perception and rejuvenate locally produced meats. "There is a huge amount of food on sale that is imported from abroad and no one knows where it comes from. This has led to a resurgence in locally produced food, especially meat.

"We must preserve the infrastructure of small and medium sized abattoirs and cutting plants – if we lose this, it will not be possible to produce and sell local produce in the same way."

Being left with only 90 large abattoirs would mean the small butcher loses his advantage of having top quality meat, she believes. "The big retailers would have the pick of all the best meat on order, leaving butchers with what is left."

There are other reasons for supporting small and medium sized abattoirs, such as animal welfare, she says. "It is inevitably more stressful for animals to travel further to slaughter. We would have to transport lambs to Northampton to reach our nearest abattoir."

Consequences would be poorer quality meat because animals are more stressed at slaughter: Bigger abattoirs mean more animals and less attention to meat eating quality, she says. &#42