Lambs are arriving thick and fast at Fearn Farm, and the Scott family remains committed to deadweight marketing. Ian Ashbridge reports
John Scott, flock manager Steve Lewis and two lambing students are coping with about 80 new arrivals a day.
Fearn Farm’s ewes produce between 1200 and 1300 Texel x Beltex lambs each spring. Nearly 60% meet E or U grades and John is aiming for 99% R3L or better. From June, he will begin drawing lambs for slaughter.
“Most of our lambs are three-quarters bred Texel, and about 90% will be marketed through Mey Selections. We got involved with this initiative simply because we wanted to add value to our product.”
Mey Selections is the brand name of North Highlands Products, a company formed by Caithness farmers to add value to the region’s beef and lamb. The meat must meet high product specification and come from farms within 100 miles of the Castle of Mey, between Thurso and John o’Groats on the north-east coast of Scotland. Mey Selections’ products are available through retailers including Sainsbury’s.
Fearn Farm, which lies on the north of the Cromarty Firth, close to the Black Isle, receives a premium over the deadweight market average price. Lambs earn an extra 15p/kg and cattle about 10p/kg.
“I used to do some work as a fieldsman for the Kepak plant at Turriff, sourcing lamb in the area for the plant, but when Scottish Premier Meat re-opened the mothballed Dornoch abattoir we started sending some of our lambs there to reduce transport costs.”
Lamb for Mey Selections is slaughtered at the Dornoch abattoir and then cut and packed for Mey Selections. Despite a new auction mart at Dingwall, John remains committed to the deadweight marketing system, not just because it gives him access to Mey Selections.
“We begin drawing batches of finished lambs from June for slaughter a week ahead, but when the grass is really making them shift we find we need to draw twice a week to avoid missing any. We start at about six in the morning, get them into the yard and sort them out. We’re ready to go by eight.
“I can be at Dornoch within 20 minutes, and in most cases will have the kill sheet back by 11 o’clock. I can calculate deductions – based on killing out percentages Meat and Livestock Commission levies – and sometimes I’ll go and watch lambs go through the plant myself.”
This method suits John because it keeps him in control of delivery through to slaughter. “Some people love going to the auction mart and they like that system. But it’s just not for us. To put an animal on a lorry, have it leave, unloaded, penned, sold, loaded again, delivered and killed is just not for me.”
Minimising the travelling time reduces stress and weight loss in the sheep, as well as reducing the risk of damage to the meat through bruising during transport or lairage, says John.
“I am delighted that the industry has changed its practice of rounding down animal weights. In the past if I sent a lamb for slaughter at 20.9kg, it was rounded down to 20.5kg. Now I will get paid for the full 20.9kg. It doesn’t sound like a lot, but at 250p/kg deadweight that 0.4kg that was discounted equated to another £1 a head. We can make a profit at 250p/kg before the single farm payment, but we’ve been getting less than that.”
John views the SFP as a period of time “to get our house in order,” before, he believes, further cuts in direct farm subsidies. “We’ve got to be trying to farm without subsidies by 2012.”
Although future subsidies will probably be delivered through environmental management contracts, John believes it will be harder to see any direct gain. “We are involved in land management contracts for three years and it is frustrating when you work out the time and effort that you spend, not in doing the work itself, but in paperwork and administration.”
But, while he continues to examine future strategies, there is plenty to do with lambing under way and calving just around the corner. Help is provided by John’s cousin, Duncan, on leave from Edinburgh University and another student, Guthrie, from Arbroath. “We haven’t had to assist many ewes yet, but we’ll be peaking soon.”