Producers must be strict about lamb selection

Prime lamb prices are up by £10-£12 a head this season, but to maintain increased returns, producers must be strict about lamb selection, writes Jeremy Hunt

Higher costs of production are soaking up much of this season’s improved prime lamb price and although finishers are trading in a buoyant market despite the turbulent economic times, lamb buyers are urging producers to be diligent in the way they select lambs.

They say it is essential to meet the trade’s specification for leanness in the coming weeks if the positive consumer demand for British lamb is to be maintained.

“A lot of farmers think lambs in January will be worth less, but I don’t think that will happen – provided the lambs are what buyers want,” one lamb buyer told Farmers Weekly.

“The home trade is good and the Christmas forecast is also strong, but looking ahead, we need a regular supply of lambs week on week. Hoggets will be needed after Christmas, so rushing to sell in anticipation of a slump in demand in the New Year would be foolhardy.”

Buyers say they don’t want peaks and troughs in supply, but equally they don’t think lambs will get any cheaper than they were in November.

Dairy farmer David Shuttleworth of Home Farm, Gargrave, North Yorkshire, finishes about 2000 lambs every winter. The animals receive no trough feeding and rely solely on autumn and winter pastures normally carrying the Shuttleworth family’s 850 dairy cows during the summer.

Lambs are bought during the autumn, starting in September – predominantly Texel crosses – weighing 32-36kg. This year’s average buying-in price was £37, which is £9-£10 more than autumn 2007. Lambs are sold from November until February, weighing 42-44kg to produce a carcass weight of 20kg.

“We’re trying to buy better lambs every year and this year’s are some of the best we’ve ever had,” says Mr Shuttleworth. “All lambs are grass finished and we draw them every two weeks. The challenge is to produce lambs of a weight we feel gives us the best return, but also lambs meeting buyers’ specification.”

The Shuttleworths are looking for a margin of £10 on lambs sold pre-Christmas and up to £20 for those sold in February and March. “If we average £13-£15 a head overall, we’ll be happy,” he says.

But at Home Farm, where the lambs are currently grazing, they have strict lamb selection procedures, with each of the 700 lambs put through the race and weighed every two weeks during the winter.

“Weight is my first guide and I’m aiming for lambs at 42kg,” he says. “Then I get a hand on them to assess the level of finish – although 40kg lambs that are good and shapely can go.”

This year’s weather has made it a difficult season for lamb producers and although lambs in certain areas have had almost too much grass in front of them, many came into the autumn much leaner than normal.

November saw a higher proportion of over-fat lambs being marketed – a result of finishers handling lambs in October and then putting them on troughs because they thought they were too light.

British lamb has been selling well this season, but buyers at auction marts say they have been determined to provide consumers with a leaner type of carcass – something they believe has underpinned the continued retail confidence and bolstered sales.

Only a few ringside lamb buyers are looking for lambs weighing over 44kg and the trade wants producers to be more aware of that. But several buyers told Farmers Weekly that despite what producers thought, they were not buying “extremely” leaner lambs and if producers looked closely at their grade sheets, they would see that was the case.

When lambs are being drawn and they handle well enough to be sold – but there is the thought that they could carry an extra couple of kilos – the message from the trade is: “Don’t be tempted.”

It’s always been a tough call and one the trade knows is something finishers find difficult to resist, but they stress it’s only top-quality, well-bred lambs that will put on “flesh and not fat” by keeping them longer to earn more. Even so, it’s still a high-risk option in the current market, according to lamb buyers.

As long as finishers continue to draw to the right specification in terms of weight and cover, a firm hogget trade is expected to get into gear in the New Year. Those who say 2009 could be the year of the £100 hogget may well be proved right.