Maintaining a year-round supply can be a real headache for sheep producers venturing into direct selling – particularly on upland farms where extended lambing isn’t an option.
But for one Cumbria Swaledale flock the growing demand for mutton has overcome this problem.
Mutton has had no place in the lean driven marketing strategy for sheep meat.
It has been virtually unobtainable in a market dominated by prime lamb where sheep kept long enough to become mutton where considered unprofitable and the product unsaleable.
But Stewart and Christine Lambert of Kitridding Farm, Kirkby Lonsdale say the discerning palates of customers buying lamb direct from the farm are relishing the distinct flavour of mutton.
The 125ha (300 acre) farm, with SDA land running to 850ft, carries 60 suckler cows and 350 hill ewes – predominantly Swaledale.
“This is heavy land carrying a Swaledale flock.
Although we’ve no option but to stick to an April lambing we can still supply customers with home produced sheep meat all year round,” says Mr Lambert.
Keeping a lid on production costs, while trying to get a profitable return from year-round retail sales, is the ethos of this family business.
And developing sales of Swaledale mutton has been an integral part of that.
About 100 Swaledales are bred pure with the rest put to Texel tups.
Although some lambs weigh about 38kg at weaning in mid-August the Lamberts resist the temptation to market them at this stage.
“We continue to market hoggets instead, taking them right through the summer as they become shearlings.
Because we still have this supply we don’t have to rush and kill lambs at weaning time.
“Weighing 38kg there isn’t enough profit in a lamb to put it through the shop.
But with a moderate amount of supplementary feeding – about 0.5lb of concentrate a day – we can get more flesh, without any more bone and gain an extra 5kg in as many weeks worth £5/kg,” says Mr Lambert.
The first of the current season’s lambs are considered ready from mid-late September weighing a minimum of 45kg.
As soon as these come on stream pressure is lifted to market the shearlings that fill the late summer marketing gap.
They are allowed to mature into mutton with two slaughtered each week during winter.
“To get the best flavour mutton needs to be about two years old.
Most of the mutton we’re producing is from pure Swaledale wethers, simply because they are the slowest maturing sheep we have on the farm.
“The sheep that ultimately provide us with mutton are the lighter lambs and aren’t pushed hard at all.
Through their first winter these lightweight lambs grow into hoggets on a low-cost diet of ad-lib silage and treacle.
“We want them to grow frame naturally, but not put on weight too quickly.
The end product is a far cry from the image mutton used to have.
But making sure these sheep don’t get too fat is a priority,” says Mr Lambert.
Throughout their first summer, as they mature from hoggets into shearlings en route to providing a supply of mutton, these wethers are fed moderately on about 0.12kg of concentrate.
“We’re constantly monitoring wethers and draw off the most forward each month for extra feeding before slaughter.
All prime sheep sold off the farm receive some supplementary feeding.
It achieves a consistent level of finish and flavour – one of the primary reasons consumers prefer to buy direct from the farm.”
The Swaledale wethers slaughtered as mutton weigh about 55-60kg and even geld shearling ewes from the breeding flock are ear-marked for mutton production.
Mutton carcasses produce boned and rolled shoulders and legs for the Lambert’s retail trade – the rest of the meat is considered a valuable by-product for the Kitridding Farm Shop’s famous range of sausages which have been hailed by top chef Rick Stein.