High expectations of strong demand for early spring lamb could trigger a re-think on the most cost effective finishing weights.
But to achieve the best margin from prices that could hit new, record levels, producers are urged not to rely solely on the creep feeder.
The big lift in lamb prices has brought a new wave of confidence to the early lamb sector, but producers are being advised to look closely at ewe diets and forage quality and not allow themselves to get carried away with high prices for a few pens of top-end lambs.
Aim to produce a consistent run of lambs in terms of weight and quality, says sheep consultant Lesley Stubbings. Be mindful of the level of cash return you want over the entire marketing period. Don’t base the system’s success on the premium prices you achieve for the first draw.”
Marketing lambs earlier at slightly lower weights – and using less creep feed – is an option that could still produce a good margin if higher prices this season are good enough to compensate for a little less weight. But this is a strategy that demands close scrutiny of ewe diets in terms of forage and concentrate inputs to ensure good milk yield is achieved and sustained.
“No one can afford to be ‘hit and miss’ about ewe diets but, no matter how well ewes are milking, there’s nothing to be gained by restricting lamb feed intakes. After four weeks old lambs should be fed as hard as you can feed them.
“And basing ewe diets on silage that has been analysed is essential because you need to know the ewe’s daily dry matter needs – and that will be 3% of her total body weight,” says Ms Stubbings.
While there’s every incentive to manage ewes to achieve optimum milk yield in the first four weeks post-lambing, equal vigilance must be maintained once creep feed intake starts to increase.
“Once lambs have hit 3L they need to be away. Beyond that level of finish feed conversion rates fall by 50% and profits fly out of the window.
“At 3L a lamb is converting at 3.5:1 but, literally, within days that can drop to 7:1. While prices may be good for early lambs this year, poor feed conversion efficiency after the 3L stage mustn’t be allowed to erode profits.”
Ian Jenkinson, Poulton-le-Fylde, Lancashire
Management of early lambing ewes in the Lancashire flock of Ian Jenkinson is geared to maintaining milk yield and this year sees the flock being fed good quality haylage – in preference to silage – plus concentrates, feed blocks and additional molasses.
Although the three-quarter Texel lambs will be encouraged to take creep from about a week old, a close eye will be kept on lamb finishing weights this spring, with the first draw expected to be at about 36-37kg.
Bad weather hit the north west before Christmas and meant some ewes had to be brought home early from winter grazing. Lambing started during the second week in January with the first lambers having been housed for about four weeks.
Ewes at the family’s Woodlands Farm, Stalmine, Poulton-le-Fylde, have been offered a range of licks during the pre-lambing period to ensure energy intakes were maintained, says Mr Jenkinson.
“Ewes and lambs can run back inside even after they’ve been turned out. Ewes still have access to licks and as well as a daily feed of concentrate and haylage. A lot depends on how the grass comes, but we could feed ewes for at least a month.”
Newly lambed ewes at Woodlands Farm looked well, but this year’s feed regime has gone all out to ensure they lambed down in good condition and kicked straight into providing plenty of milk for their lambs. “I’ve had problems in the past with ewes failing to get that first flush of milk early enough, but this year they’re milking really well,” he says.
But he won’t be chasing extra weight from the often volatile early lamb market. “It seems harsh to kill them as early as 36kg but, if the price drops and you’ve put extra cake into them, you’re no better off. Everyone is waiting to see how the price holds up for new season lamb, but I’ll be keen to get my first lambs away as soon as I can.”