23 August 2002

Store lamb sales success

Profiting from producing

store lambs has not

been easy in recent

years, but Jonathan Long

finds out how flockmasters

can take control of

their own destiny

KEEPING abreast of store lamb customers requirements and providing what they want, rather than simply selling off lambs which look like they will cost too much to finish, can earn a premium.

Thats the experience of East Sussex producer Larry Cooke, who is achieving higher prices after taking notice of market trends. "For many years I produced purebred Romney lambs, but buyers want Texel and Suffolk-sired lambs and since switching to these I am earning an extra £3-4/lamb," says Mr Cooke, who farms 485ha (1200 acres) at East Guldeford, Rye on Romney Marsh.

Mr Cooke still produces some purebred Romney lambs, but these are surplus ewe and wether lambs from his 2000-ewe breeding flock. With much of the farms grassland a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI), the opportunity to finish all of the lambs produced is denied him, so store lambs are sold from mid-July onwards.

"Due to the limitations of the SSSI, the farm cant produce enough grass of the quality to finish more than 2500 lambs every year and keep the ewes through winter," says Mr Cooke.

The lambs he does finish are a small proportion of the flock and are aimed at a specialist market. "Ive recently been using a Southdown ram to produce high quality lighter lambs for one particular customer. But this is only a small part of our flock and producing top quality store lambs remains our key aim."

When selling store lambs, Mr Cooke believes in producing even bunches of lambs which fill the pens on sale day. This means lambs must be matched well, but more importantly ewes must lamb down in as tight a period as possible.

This is done by running no more than 40 ewes to one ram and always grouping ewes in large numbers. Then, if one ram is not working there is always another one to cover ewes on heat.

"There is no point in producing a pen of 50 lambs and having five smaller ones among them. It is far better to put a uniform bunch of 45 in front of buyers and sell the other five separately. The smaller ones will always spoil the top lambs and then you start to lose money and buyers," says Mr Cooke.

But producing what buyers want doesnt just mean getting the breeding right. Many store lambs are not given enough attention prior to sale, says Mr Cooke.

"Traditionally, lambs would be weaned on the sale day. While lambs looked good in the sale ring, buyers ended up with lambs which were unsettled and went backwards when they got them home. I wean lambs at least four days before sale to ensure they are settled and have started to overcome any growth check."

"Store lambs dont need to be too far forward at sale, either. Lambs should go away from the sale and put flesh on immediately. This leaves buyers happy that theyve made a wise investment and leads to repeat customers. Lambs need plenty of frame when sold, but shouldnt be overfit," says Mr Cooke.

By starting store lamb sales in July – earlier than most – Mr Cooke is able to catch the first trade of the season and gain an idea of the likely trend for the rest of the season. This, he says, makes his job much easier.

"At the first local sale on July 25, buyers wanted smaller lambs with less finish. These are the longer term lamb that will be finished around Christmas, rather than the more forward types which will be fit within a month.

"With another sale coming up in the next few weeks, well take account of this and draw off our lighter lambs for the first couple of sales."

Mr Cooke stresses that this year, more than most, producers must ensure their lambs are in the right shape on sale day. "With the 20-day standstill, nobody will be able to afford to take lambs home from a sale. Lambs will have to sell no matter what the price."

Environmental restrictions at Moneypenny Farm mean that there is not enough grass to finish lambs and keep ewes through the winter, so selling store lambs is the only option, says Larry Cooke.

&#8226 Listen to buyers.

&#8226 Frame not finish.

&#8226 Consistent type and quality.

Make the most of your investment

BUYING store lambs is much like playing the futures market and vendors should do all they can to reduce the risks for those buying their stock, says Larry Cooke.

"Store lamb buyers are placing their faith in the price of prime lambs up to six months in the future."

Those selling store lambs need to recognise this and provide every possible reassurance to buyers that their lambs are worth investing in. Mr Cooke believes this includes ensuring they are free from health problems by dipping and drenching them in the weeks prior to sale.

"It may not cost much to dip or drench lambs, but it is another factor that buyers dont have to worry about if vendors do them before the sale. Lamb finishers will often have more than 1000 lambs in a bunch, finding one lamb with fly-strike among that number is an unwanted task."

However, Mr Cooke avoids treating his flock with every possible drug available and has given up many routine treatments because he feels they dont represent value for money.

"Until three years ago we dosed every ewe with a copper bolus to prevent swayback in lambs and used routine vaccinations across the flock, now we do neither and experience similar losses as when we were treating the flock." &#42