Upland lamb scheme grows sevenfold in seven years

A growing number of Swaledale breeders across northern England are reaping the rewards of a direct contract supplying high-street retailer Marks and Spencer (M&S) through Dawn Meats.

Since the scheme’s inception in 2011, the annual number of Swaledale wether lambs being sold deadweight has increased from 12 producers supplying 1,764 lambs to a throughput of 12,241 in 2017 from 45 producers.  

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The scheme markets lambs that have spent much of their life on the high fells, many in hefted flocks. However, to be successful the scheme depends on regular throughputs, consistent quality and good communication between processor, retailer, breed association and producer.

Finishing Swaledale lambs in specification and to good weights offers its challenges, with the breed primarily bred for maternal traits and hardiness.

Farmers Weekly spoke to a farming family who have been supplying the scheme since day one, finding out how they hit specification and what the contract means for their business.

Swaledale M&S scheme

  • Runs for 18 weeks from 1 January to 30 April
  • Requires a minimum of 550 lambs a week
  • In-spec is O3L/R3L or better
  • Carcass weights must be 16-21.5kg
  • Lambs are graded on the Europ grid and paid at that week’s average Great Britain standard quality quotation (SQQ)
  • In-spec lambs get 15p/kg bonus
  • Lambs processed by Dunbia/Dawn Meats, Carnaby
  • Farms audited to M&S Select Farm Standards, in addition to Red Tractor
  • Producers book in weekly loads. Supply co-ordinated by Swaledale Sheep Breeders Association secretary John Stephenson

Slatted shed and ad-lib system sees lambs make the grade

Swaledale and North of England Mule breeders Geoff, Margaret, John and Rob Walker managed to get 293 of 368 lambs (79.62%) sent to Dawn Meats within the M&S specification last year, the highest proportion within the producer group.

Farm facts

  • 1,300 Swaledale ewes – two-thirds bred pure, one-third put to Bluefaced Leicester
  • 40-head suckler herd, including pedigree Belgian Blue, selling bulls each year
  • 2,428ha of upland ground of which 8ha mowable
  • Land rising to 527m, receiving 2.3m-2.6m of rainfall/year

This is a marked improvement on the 50-60% in specification in the early years of the scheme. The Walkers typically send 300-350 Swaledale wether lambs in batches of 20-30 a week via a collection centre at Skipton.

Most of their sheep are grazed at the home farm, Brennand Farm, Dunsop Bridge, with about 500 ewes at Whitendale Farm further up the valley, which was added to their United Utilities tenancy in 2007.

The Walkers took on the tenancy at Brennand Farm in the Trough of Bowland in 1970. Geoff says the scheme is typically worth £6-£9 a head over the liveweight trade.

“I would like to get more lambs in this scheme,” says Geoff. “No other way pays as well, providing you get lambs in spec.”

However, the Walkers remain big believers in the live marts and still sell prime lambs at Clitheroe, as well as spreading their marketing options by selling bigger lambs and tups deadweight to a local abattoir after drawing 10 shearlings to sell each year after leaving 30-40 entire.

“From studying the kill sheets, we have learned what we used to traditionally think of as a finished lamb was too fat,” explains Geoff. “We have now seen lambs hung up and how they grade – we used to sell far more 3Hs in the past and aim for a 21kg carcass, but we have learned that 19-20kg pay us well.”

Over the years, the Walkers have tended to sell more lambs in February/March time, but they are now ensuring a regular supply most weeks to fit in with the group’s requirements.

This means constant observation and assessment over a five- to eight-week finishing phase.

“It’s easy to get Swaledale lambs too fat,” says Rob. “They are bred for tough environments and naturally put fat on before muscle, so we keep a close eye on growth with weekly weighing.”

4 tips to making the grade

  1. Slatted shed: Slatted flooring improves hygiene and minimises lameness issues.
  2. Shearing: Lambs are shorn before entering the finishing phase to stop slats being blocked up with wool. This helps visual assessment of conformation and growth, with shearing also helping drive intakes. 
  3. EID: Identifying a few bigger, smaller, thinner, longer lambs each week and noting down the ID numbers helps in a constant learning process. Kill sheets come back two to three days later and grades are checked to see if guesses were correct.
  4. Weighing: A weigh crate with a dial is used to draw lambs from 39kg up to 44-45kg. Lambs are batched on size and given a different colour marker to differentiate between lambs needing assessing and those earlier in the finishing phase.

Breeding policy

The Walkers are first and foremost pedigree breeders selling three-crop draft ewes for crossing, but they have a strong commercial focus that is improving breeding stock and their prime lamb system.  

“There’s no extra cost to us weaning a 25kg lamb or a 20kg lamb at the end of a summer on the fell,” says John. “Good maternal sheep make a difference because the smaller lambs at weaning never go on to grade as well and that weight put on in the summer costs nothing.”

Strict culling policies prioritise strong feet, good bags and fertility, with all empty ewes sold and lambs unable to get up and suck on their own marked and sent for finishing. Tups are sourced on good teeth and conformation.

This policy has seen empty rates fall from 5% to 2-3% over the past eight years and, like many hill farms, the Walkers have seen scanning rates lift from 125% to 135% on the purebreds.