Native breeds make commercial sense

A desire to finish more lambs off grass and achieve good margins from organic production led sheep and cattle producer Mason Palmer from Winchelsea to reassess his terminal sire choice to simplify flock management.

“Historically, we used Suffolks and Continental breed sires across our Lleyn ewes, but we were finding that while these lambs were grading well and achieving good sale prices they required concentrate feeding to finish them.

“When you took into account the cost of feed the margin was seriously eroded,” explains Mr Palmer who farms in partnership with his wife Sally.

The 750-ewe Lleyn flock is closed, so Mr Palmer was keen to find a terminal sire breed capable of knitting with the breed without the danger of buying in management problems. “We need a sire breed which means Lleyns can lamb without assistance and leaves lambs with plenty of vigour so they get up and go.”

The couple decided to try Hampshire Downs due to their reputation for easy finishing and thriving off grass alone. “We’re aiming to produce meat from grass alone in the sheep enterprise. Ewes are never fed concentrate even over winter and only receive hay when there is snow on the ground, so having lambs able to thrive off grass is essential.”

And with most lambs sold to a trader who markets directly to consumers through farmers’ markets or to restaurants, having a good-quality, even and consistent carcass is paramount in Mr Palmer’s mind. “Hampshire Down crosses fit the bill perfectly in this respect because they have excellent conformation and we are able to select for key parameters such as growth rate, muscling and fat levels through the performance recording data.”

Additionally, the native breeds tend to give carcasses a good level of intramuscular fat which some of the Continental breeds don’t, aiding meat flavour and cooking quality, he explains.

When it comes to selecting rams Mr Palmer is adamant performance figures are a great aid. “We can pick rams which we know will leave carcasses with the right level of fat cover and lambs which will grow quickly.”

But with lambs from the April lambing flock sold all-year round some lambs have to go through a store period for a while to ensure there is sufficient supply later in the season. “These lambs are put onto shorter, tighter grass and grow good frame which we can then put flesh on when they move to our clover-rich leys for finishing. Again picking rams on performance data aids this as we can go for those which we know will take flesh without going fat too soon.”

Such is Mr Palmer’s confidence in the Hampshire Down’s ability to finish at heavier weights that he has now begun taking some lambs up to 46kg liveweight before slaughtering them. “These lambs are yielding decent size carcasses and with it costing proportionatley less to cut a large carcass than a small one, the cost/kg of killing and cutting them is reduced.”

Average carcass weights from the flock are in the 19-20kg region, whereas previously they were closer to 17.5kg-18kg. “We’re selling carcasses at a flat price of £3.50/kg all year round, so a 2kg difference in carcass weight makes a big difference to margins.”

Improved performance as a result of choosing tups with good growth rate figures means these extra few kilograms can be gained in the same time previous lamb crops took to reach lower weights.

Mr Palmer places equal importance on the Lleyn as his choice of ewe breed and has spent time breeding a larger strain of the breed to aid carcass weights from the maternal side, too. “This has also helped ease back the lambing percentage to a more manageable level for our easier care system. We were running at more than 200% when we were lambing inside, but there were too many triplets which needed extra care. We’re now back to a sensible level of 165-170% sold, which is perfect for our system,” he adds.

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