WEIGHING UP MAY LAMB OPTIONS
Finishing May-born lambs
may be the only way to
ensure adequate returns in
late lambing flocks this
season, but what are the
management options? Sheep
consultant Lesley Stubbings
gives her views
THERE has been a growing interest among lowland flocks in May lambing in recent years. The reasons are clear. The system is designed to utilise grazing at critical times, particularly late pregnancy and early lactation, reducing feed costs significantly. Capital expenditure is also lower. For those without housing, ewes can be kept and lambed outdoors.
Overall, the cost of production of lambs from May lambing systems should be much lower than more conventional spring lambing. Success does, however, rely on good grassland management, maintaining low input costs and a high level of traditional shepherding expertise. Despite common claims that this system is easy, the truth is that it must be well managed.
Unfortunately, as with most things, there has to be an Achilles heel. For the May lamber, it is that most lambs will not be finished off grass by the end of September unless they are in a very good area for grass growth. The majority are effectively store lambs and require further finishing.
For the last few years, many May lambing flocks have side-stepped this issue by selling stores on to a buoyant trade in the late summer and autumn. Last season was of course memorable because these lambs made a lot of money as stores – you dont need to look too far to find a store finisher who has struggled with the trade all winter to try and minimises his losses on the deal.
The bottom line is that they wont be paying high prices for stores in 1998. At the sort of prices we can expect, the May lamber cannot make a margin on selling stores – they must look to finish. It will not suffice to leave it to chance.
Even with very low costs, an output of less than £45 a ewe for store lamb sales is not an exciting prospect. In truth this should always have been the aim of the late lambing flock on lowland farms with high fixed costs.
A small lamb, even though it should be healthy and unchecked, was never going to generate enough output for the majority of lowland flocks. The system must incorporate a solid plan for finishing the lambs in the autumn/winter period to be successful; if this cant be done then the answer is simple; late lambing is not for you!
Options for finishing
There are a number of potential options for finishing May-born lambs. The most important step to take now is to weigh up which of them an individual flock may be able to utilise and then calculate the costs.
• Grass finishing – has to be the first consideration. Can you push your own grass a bit harder, utilise your set-aside after Sep 15 or is there grass keep which can be rented in the locality (dairy farms etc)? This will finish the most forward lambs without supplement. Those further away from finishing will need some concentrate – again plan this; dont leave it to late October and have to shovel supplement into them.
• Forage crops – there may be opportunities to put forage crops in or take keep from other farmers in the area. Be sure though to count the full opportunity costs of such crops; what do you lose on the arable rotation because of the catch crop?
• Silage – lambs can be finished successfully on very good quality silage indoors with minimal supplementation. Dont expect to do this of anything below 69D value or big bale silage which is not double chopped.
• Concentrates – a more expensive system but relatively predictable and easy to cost. Store lambs will convert at about 8kg feed to 1kg live weight gain, therefore, at £120/t concentrate each kg liveweight gain will cost 96p.
• Alternative feeds – in different areas of the country, there will be opportunities for waste products, (eg veg, confectionary). These can be cost-effective but work out their relative value carefully, check practical things like load sizes, intakes and storage before getting too excited.
Keep them healthy!
The main point of the exercise at this time is to start to make plans. This includes making sure that lambs get a good start this spring and stay healthy.
Worm burdens are the biggest enemy of these lambs and if their guts are damaged during the summer they will be difficult to finish. This does not mean to say that they should be wormed ad lib all season! Discuss worm control with your vet and the merits of monitoring burdens using faecal egg counts and drenching on the basis of need.
Other considerations are pasteurella and clostridial disease. Store lambs need to be protected by vaccination as the protection from their mothers has gone by 12 weeks of age and if you keep them into the autumn they will be at risk. *
Weighing up finishing options and calculate relative costs now, advises sheep consultant Lesley Stubbings.
May lambing utilises grazing at critical times, reducing feed costs significantly, but consider finishing progeny this year to help maintain margins.
• Store market likely to be less buoyant.
• Aim to finish lambs.
• Plan finishing system now.