Smart lamb selection reaps rewards

Selecting lambs according to buyer specification is ensuring maximum return for one North Yorkshire farmer. Jeremy Hunt reports

Finishing store lambs from a range of different breeds and crosses and finding the most lucrative deadweight market for every lamb produced over a six-month selling season may seem like a tough challenge, but it’s one that’s working well for producer Richard Findlay – provided lambs are bought at the right price.

“This is a long-keep system that can see us selling into May, and although we can keep lambs ticking over for several months when we need to, we’ve got to buy at the right price. That’s absolutely essential to give us the leeway we need on costs when we’re carrying lambs on into the spring before being sold.

“Lambs bought at £50 with the potential to turn into hoggets worth £75-£80 give us that much-needed room for manoeuvre on finishing costs before we decide to bring them inside and put them on to hoppers,” says Mr Findlay of Quarry Farm, Castelton, in the heart of the North York Moors National Park.

This year about 1800 store lambs will be finished on the system Mr Findlay runs in conjunction with Redcar-based beef and arable farmer William Wardman. Lambs sold so far this season have been leaving a margin of just over £10 a head.

Lambs are bought-in privately and through markets mainly during September and October – although “good lambs at the right money” can still be arriving up to Christmas.

“We buy any breed or cross and a big selection of Mules, Beltex-cross, Texel-cross, Suffolk cross and horned lambs on the farm at the moment. It’s not about the breed, it’s about whether the lambs can turn into profit, but that does mean we need to be on the ball when it comes to marketing a wide range of lambs of different types.”

Lambs are bought-in weighing from 30kg to 45kg depending on how they are bred. On arrival, they’re wormed and given a vitamin drench and then sorted according to size. In the autumn, the smaller lambs are moved onto silage aftermaths and then rented grass and later switched to kale, which is traditionally grown as part of the re-seeding programme at Quarry Farm.

“We supplement the kale with some trough feeding to get scale and size into the smaller lambs so we’ve got something to put some finish on when we decide to bring them inside into the finishing sheds,” Mr Findlay explains.

The 15 acres of kale was hit by the dry weather at drilling time last summer and had to be replaced with stubble turnips. But heavy snow cover on the turnips has also caused problems this winter and made them unfit to feed – a situation that has meant more hopper feeding outside. It’s adding to finishing costs this winter, but Mr Findlay hopes the improved prices for store lambs will make up for it.

The straw-bedded finishing yards – which may be switched to slats in the future – hold sheep for about four weeks depending on the type of lambs. Gains at housing are around 5kg. “But it’s very important for us to have lambs well grown by the time they come inside so the final push is more about putting on finish rather than weight.

“We’re using a blend because we prefer it to a pellet – with pellets, some lambs can blow up; the blend gets them nibbling and stimulates intakes, particularly in horned lambs.”

Although encouraged by the sustained improvement in store lamb and hogget prices this season, Mr Findlay says he doubts prices will exceed £4/kg.

During the autumn, not many lambs were bought above £50 a head and a batch of Swaledale wethers cost £30. “It’s still a gamble with long-keep lambs, but with the hope hogget prices could reach £80, that will give us upwards of £30 to play with to cover costs of keeping lambs well into the spring before we start selling.

“We had lambs away in early January at £4/kg, but I don’t think we’ll see prices get much above that,” he says.

And it’s an anticipation of buyers not going over £4/kg that makes him even more focused on achieving the best possible price for every lamb coming out of the finishing shed.

It isn’t unusual to see two wagons leaving Quarry Farm on the same day loaded with lambs from the same shed, but destined for buyers with very individual specifications. Emptying the pens and selling every lamb to one buyer isn’t considered sensible marketing.

“We use an agent to find out how much various abattoirs are paying and what their specifications are. We tell him the breed and weights and provide him with our estimated carcass classification. He’ll come back with some options based on the prices being offered.

“Because we’re buying lambs we believe have the potential to leave us the best margin, we end up with a big range of breeds and types. That means we’ve got to make sure we target them specifically to the right buyers. We want to know what they want in terms of weight and finish, but we also need to know how they trim – trimming specification can make a big difference.

“We recently sold some lambs to a buyer who was paying a premium for well-finished lambs, but the abattoir had a hard trimming specification. We sent lambs weighing 23-24kg knowing they’d end up at 21.5kg-22kg and so still earn the premium he was paying on every kilo. Some abattoirs with a less severe trimming specification would have penalised those lambs and we’d have lost out.”

All lambs in the finishing shed are handled at least twice during the final stage and after weighing are marked according to their weight and potential carcase classification.

“The most valuable time for me is time spent drawing lambs for specific outlets. When we don’t get them drawn properly, we stand a far greater chance of failing to get the best price. For us, any time spent handling lambs is well worth it.

“There’s no point in sending a shed full of lambs to one buyer when only half of them actually meet his specification, and the lambs he’s going to pay you less for could be exactly what another buyer is screaming to buy.

“From a batch of say 80 lambs ready to go on the same day, there can be 30 go on one wagon to one buyer and the rest picked up on another wagon to go to another buyer to try and get the best return possible,” says Mr Findlay.

All lambs are Farm Assured, with batches usually leaving the farm every two weeks.

See more