12 July 2002

Spread organic lamb supply to suit superstores

By Richard Allison

THE glut of organic lamb this autumn should only be a temporary problem, providing producers act to spread lamb supply to meet supermarket requirements.

An oversupply of organic lamb is predicted this autumn afer a doubling of lamb numbers this year, says the Soil Associations head of agriculture Phil Stocker. "Up to 230,000 organic lambs are expected to be produced in the UK this year, which is likely to cause an over-supply this autumn."

But it is only a temporary glitch caused by the large numbers of producers completing conversion, says SAC senior organic adviser David Younie. "The market cannot cope with a dramatic increase in supply, even though the organic market is still expanding."

He advises producers to assess market requirements, ensure quality is high and it is supplied when required. "Consider adjusting lambing dates to produce lambs earlier or later to avoid the glut during autumn."

While it is not possible to produce January-born lambs due to the expense of organic concentrates, some areas of the UK can support earlier lambing. But autumn grazing must be managed to provide early bite by keeping fields stock-free during winter, he adds.

To produce early lambs, Devon-based organic producer Peter Walters went for year-round lambing Dorset ewes when starting conversion a year ago. "Timing of organic lamb sales is crucial to maximise prices."

He is also considering fattening organic stores as another enterprise. "Organic producers on Dartmoor are unable to finish lambs, while there is plenty of grass being produced on our unit without fertiliser."

For hill producers, Mr Younie suggests aiming for the later hogget market and taking advantage of better weather for lambing. "This will also help minimise feed costs during spring, but the problem of over-wintering lambs requires in-bye fields for grazing or forage crops.

"Unless organic store lamb prices improve over the next 2-3 years, some producers will fall out of the system, reverting back to conventional once the final payment of the subsidy scheme is received."

Another way to match supply with demand is by joining a marketing co-op, says Olly Curtis of Organic Livestock Farmers of Cornwall and Devon. "One aim is to help gather information on how much stock is available for slaughter and help organise numbers with abattoirs.

"An abattoir will require a certain number of lamb or beef carcasses each week and we organise producers to supply this amount. This helps to eliminate some of the seasonality. While the organic market is difficult to work in, it seems to be working quite well, says Mr Curtis.

This approach is being scaled up nationally with the Federation of Organic Livestock Marketing Groups, says Mr Stocker. "It will also encourage cross-trade between marketing co-ops and provide a more consistent supply of organic livestock. "Supermarkets often blame inconsistent UK supplies when opting for imported organic produce."

Scottish producers are also planning to hold back surplus lambs where necessary to avoid a price collapse, says Scottish Borders producer Giles Henry. "We hope to avoid slaughtering organic lambs at 15kg deadweight or less, as it increases processing costs and makes UK organic lamb appear expensive."

This is being achieved by matching local store lamb producers with lowland producers to push lighter lambs to heavier weights and market them in the New Year," says Mr Henry.

But oversupply is not expected to be a problem faced by the organic beef sector, says Mr Younie. "Cheap imports are the main problem and producers need to be prepared for prices of about 230-235p/kg deadweight." &#42