Finished lambs can still earn a margin for hill farmers

Lake District hill farms can’t survive on a market paying as little as £10 a head for store lambs, but when housed and finished – even though feed costs this year will be about £18 a head – they should leave a fair margin.


It’s a relatively high-cost system – lamb pellets have been up to £200/t – but one that has become an essential source of income on several high fell farms in the Lake District and Howhall Farm, Ennerdale, is one of them.


It’s farmed by the Hardisty family, who run 500 Herdwick ewes and 300 Swaledales. Although hill ewe numbers have been depleted as part of Natural England’s environmental destocking programme that’s now sweeping the Lakeland fells, the farm also carries a flock of 500 “white-faced” sheep which are produced from its draft Swaledale ewes put to Cheviot and Lleyn rams and then run with Texel tups to provide a finished lamb crop.


The range of finished lamb produced on the farm include wether lambs from the pure-bred fell flocks, Cheviot- and Lleyn-sired wethers out of Swaledales and the entire crop of Texel-sired lambs from the Cheviot and Lleyn crosses.


“We used to sell all our lambs as stores, but a farm like this can’t survive on £10 a lamb,” says Neil Hardisty.


Mr Hardisty, who farms with his father Wils, relies on the hefty investment made in a purpose built lamb-finishing shed to improve sheep income – particularly from hill-bred wether lambs. The 120ft x 45ft building has Yorkshire-boarded sides, a central feed passage and two pens running down each side. Pens have round-metal slatted floors. There are three free-standing feed hoppers for ad-lib rations in each pen and the shed has running water to encourage hill lambs to drink.


“It cost about £50,000 which was a lot to spend, but it was something we felt we had to do to get as much as we could from these lambs,” says Wils Hardisty.


April-born Swaledale wether lambs are weaned in early August, but Herdwick lambs remain with the ewes until October. Some of the Texel-sired lambs are finished at grass by late October, but the remainder are housed in early November, says Neil Hardisty.


“Ideally we like Swaledale lambs to graze rented ground until February and grow some frame before we bring them inside, but wintering on dairy farms is getting harder to find,” says Neil Hardisty.


Hill sheep like Swaledales are not a standard commodity and lamb weights at housing can vary from 22kg to 31kg. The first draw from Swaledale wethers will be in January after a minimum six weeks housing.


“It’s a high cost operation, particularly this year when feed costs have increased and we haven’t been able to get any wintering. We’ll be looking at feed costs of about £18 a lamb. So these lambs will stand us at about £30 and it would be good to think these Swaledale hoggets could make 120p/kg in January/February,” says Mr Hardisty.


Lambs are put through a race twice a week and pulled out when weighing 40kg and over, but achieving the weight and quality from a hill-bred lamb on this system is a challenge.


“Last year we’d some tremendous Swaledale lambs which went deadweight. The grading sheets showed they were as good as the Texel lambs with a good proportion of U grades.”


Wils and Neil Hardisty are hoping the hogget trade will remain firm – not only for their housed lambs, but also for the farm’s grass-finished Herdwick wethers.


“If we’d sold Herdwicks as stores they’d have made £9 apiece, but we keep them until late March-mid-April. Last year these were the most profitable sheep on the farm and we made up to 150p/kg and averaged £54.50,” he explains.


This year’s hoggets from Howhall Farm will be sold through Mitchells Auction Mart at Cockermouth. Auctioneer Adam Day says Lake District hill farms are now producing high quality finished lambs and hoggets and he expects the export trade in the New Year to be strong.


“These hill-bred lambs are just what the export trade wants, but my advice to farmers is to draw lambs once and then go through them a bit harder a second time. Lambs have to hit the specification at about 42kg. Hill lambs finished inside mustn’t be allowed to put on too much cover and miss out on a lively spring trade that could bring much needed income,” says Mr Day.