Feeding lambs on stubble turnips and concentrate to finish over winter needs careful management to avoid them becoming fat. But the biggest challenge is marketing lambs to achieve the best prices, according to one Cumbria family.
Selling homebred lambs and bought-in stores means keeping a close eye on prices, believe the Crichtons, who hope liveweight sales will reach 1.20/kg before the end of the season.
And although the family lambs its ewes in spring, it prefers to sell its April-born lambs in winter instead of risking the notoriously fickle trade of late summer.
“Selling during winter can be just as risky as summer.
But it suits our system and means we can stock spring-born lambs tightly on grass after weaning and incorporate stubble turnips into the rotation of our 83ha of corn,” says Alexander Crichton.
The family – Alexander, his brother Robert and mother Eleanor – runs 158ha (380 acres) at Rottington Hall, St Bees, Cumbria.
After deciding not to return to milk production after foot-and-mouth, they now rely on two ewe flocks to generate income.
Some 200 Texel-cross ewes lamb in February with 400 North of England Mules lambing in April.
All lambs from the February lambing flock are sold in early summer, but the April-born lambs – about 700 – form the basis of the winter finishing system.
Up to 1000 store lambs are also bought-in to maintain prime lamb output into late March.
“It’s swings and roundabouts,” says Mr Crichton.
“You want good returns from the prime lambs you’re selling, but that can push up the price of store lambs you want to buy.
“The winter selling market can be unpredictable.
Some years are good and some not so good, but jumping in and out doesn’t work.”
About 20ha (50 acres) of stubble turnips are sown following harvesting of winter barley in July and this year the first batch of 300 lambs were turned on to a 1.25ha (3 acres) strip of roots in early October.
“We had the first lambs away in late October, weighing 45-46kg.
Everything goes live to Longtown auction mart and we’ve been achieving up to 1.08/kg.”
Once lambs are settled on roots, feed hoppers are introduced to provide an ad-lib diet based on a 16% bought-in ration – brought down to 14% with added home-grown barley.
Working on tight margins means lamb quality and levels of finish have to be carefully monitored once feed hoppers are out.
“We handle every lamb on roots every week to keep on top of how quickly they’re putting on flesh.
They can get fit very quickly.”
In a good winter with average rainfall lambs could still be on roots in early March.
However, the most forward batches are moved indoors for the last two weeks of finishing to ensure lambs are clean.
“We tend to buy Charollais and Texel sired lambs for late-season finishing and aim to put an extra 10kg on them.
We’ve been paying 35-36 a head and, taking haulage, dosing and feed into account, they need to leave us 14 a head to give us a margin.”
About 200 North Country Cheviots are included in the annual buy-in and are highly rated by the Crichtons as a breed that suits their system without the risk of getting too fat.
“North Country Cheviots do well for us and we know we can safely take them to heavier weights well into February when hogget prices hopefully start to firm up.
We can get them to 44kg.”
Mr Crichton says finishing some April-born lambs by late summer is not being ruled out in future, but focusing flock and grassland management around winter finishing will remain the farm’s main source of livestock income.