The NFU and the National Sheep Association launched a joint report at the Sheep Event, predicting a bright future for British lamb production. Farmers Weekly picks out the key messages and highlights the issues
Strong UK position in world markets
A growing world population and increasing affluence in developing economies will continue to increase demand for lamb.
The UK is the third biggest trader of sheepmeat in the world behind New Zealand and Australia, accounting for 9.5% of global exports in 2012.
About 36% of British production already heads abroad and the UK is set to grab the new opportunities.
It has access to 69 markets, including top targets China and Saudi Arabia.
If New Zealand and Australia switch more of their exports to the Far East, the UK can take a bigger share of the European market.
However, the domestic scene remains a challenge, with annual lamb consumption dropping from 7.5kg a person in 1990 to 1.9kg today.
Diverse farming structure
The three-tier production system – straddling hills, upland and lowland farms – matches breed characteristics to the different environments of the UK.
The network of 111 livestock markets across the country allows a busy trade of store lambs to ensure the best use of land and feed.
About 60% of finished lambs are sold at auction, with an average throughput of more than 69,000/year.
Roughly three-quarters of the yearly kill passes through the 20 largest abattoirs, which source lambs direct from farms, through marts or from marketing groups.
The diverse market structure gives farmers several ways to sell, adding competition and spreading risk.
New entrant opportunities
Bringing in new blood is a challenge for all of agriculture but sheep farming can be an attractive place to begin.
The physical, outdoor style of sheep farming offers plenty of opportunities for younger people.
Off the farm, lamb production is supported by a range of allied jobs, in animal health, research, meat processing and sales.
Also the lower capital cost requirements and less need for a permanent base make starting out in sheep an “achievable first step on the farming ladder”.
Ensuring good returns for all
The last Eblex Stocktake survey showed the top third of producers were making money but average-performing farms struggled to make a positive margin.
Better flock management can raise the value and volume of output.
Farmers need to make the most of tools available from levy bodies, processors and supermarkets that would help them take on the latest science and research in feed, breeding and management.
Using estimated breeding values (EBVs) would be one example.
They can collaborate with other producers to lower their production costs.
Farmers can also use the advice from levy bodies to understand the different markets and their required specifications, which would then help lamb selection on farm.
For example, plain, overfinished and overweight lambs can push down the SQQ.
Abattoirs and supermarkets need to be more transparent in how they work with farmers.
A uniform specification for carcass dressing and weight and a change to the hot/cold rebate would help.
Abattoirs must provide more easily digestible feedback to farmers which would help farmers hit specification more often.
Any feedback should also include lambs sold through auction markets.
Price reporting by processors should be improved: prices should be reported on the same day, deadweight values should receive more prominence and the daily SQQ should better reflect lamb quality.
Similarly, the weighing of liveweight lambs needs to be standardised across the industry to make sure a fair price is published.
Better disease controls needed
Farmers and the government need to keep working to manage diseases that could threaten Britain’s trade with the rest of the world.
An outbreak of an exotic disease such as foot-and-mouth could hit farmgate prices by £12.50 a lamb overnight.
The UK needs to have border controls as robust and effective as New Zealand and clear plans to quickly deal with an incident and limit its spread.
The sheep traceability system needs to be simplified to ease farmers’ red tape burden, but not in a way that compromises disease control.
Proposals to expand the 10-mile limit for sheep holdings from the main premises and introduce the ability to assign temporary land for movement reporting would also be welcomed.
Endemic diseases can also hit production and rural development money should be used to fund animal health and disease management schemes for farmers.
This could include a nationwide sheep scab control programme.
The EU must also review the out-of-date transmissible spongiform encephalopathies controls as the condition can devalue carcasses by up to 50% and cost the industry about £23.5m/year.
Carcass splitting should be ended across Europe, but changing the 12-month age limit to the end of June after the year of birth could be a short-term measure.