for the best return
Matching lamb production to market opportunities is vital. Rebecca Austin visited a Kent farm which is busy adapting its system
WHELAN FARMS, which extends across the North Downs, near Westerham, Kent, believes it produces lambs which are superior to most in the market place.
Farm manager Robert Kilby and shepherd Stuart Howard have therefore set out to achieve the optimum price by marketing the 1800 lambs through three different outlets.
Nearly one third will sell through the four-year-old Chitty Special Lamb Scheme, where they achieved premiums in excess of 20p/kg last season. This lamb is sold as Farmhouse Lamb in the John Lewis Partnerships Waitrose food stores.
There are 100 producers in southern England marketing 50,000 lambs this way. Chitty Group, the Guildford-based abattoir, insists farms subscribe to the Farm Assured British Beef and Lamb scheme, although they must also be inspected by Chitty itself. Growth promoters are not allowed, nor dipping with organophosphorus dips. Pour-ons are permitted.
At birth these lambs are tagged and parentage recorded. This enables Waitrose to trace the meat to the farm and allows Chitty Group to analyse breeds and management techniques against conformation, fatness and killing out percentages.
The abattoir returns its results to the producer as pie charts and graphs, so practice can be adjusted to improve performance.
"The scheme does not specify a breed, as there is often more difference within a breed than between breeds. But we do aim for E, U and R gradings at 2 and 3L," says Rebecca Helyer, Chittys special lamb co-ordinator. "The aim of the scheme is to link the farmer with the supermarket."
Mr Howard and Mr Kilby have focused on Scotch halfbred x Texels for Chitty this season. As these are the only lambs offered creep and tagged with a special Chitty tag they are separated from the rest of the flock.
About 50 a week are sent for slaughter from mid-May until the end of June. Confirming with the abattoir that it can guarantee a set number of lambs allows Whelan Farms to pick up a 3p/kg bonus on each lamb at the end of the season.
"If you are going to join this scheme it is imperative you use a good grader," says Mr Kilby, who uses neighbour and Chitty fieldsman Chris Ballard.
Management costs within the scheme are about 60p/lamb – tags costing 20p and grading 40p/lamb. "It may seem a lot, but compare it with commission in the market and there is little difference," says Mr Kilby. Lambing, synchronised with grass growth, started on Mar 10, with the majority having produced by Apr 1. Lambing percentage was 175% to the field, and Mr Howard budgets on over 170% reaching their market. Mortality stands at 1% in the field and 5% from birth to sale.
The Scotch halfbreds may attract Chittys premiums, but Whelan Farms worries they are not as prolific as Mules – 158-160% lambing percentage, compared with the Mules 200%. With this in mind, they are sourcing Mule tegs to increase numbers to a 1400-head target.
"It is important we manoeuvre our marketing to the strength and potential of the sheep enterprise. We want to keep our options open," says Mr Kilby. "For the past three years we have been looking at alternative markets – direct sales to supermarkets seems to be the way forward. It is a very important outlet for the farm."
Right breed for farm
But Mr Kilby is also keen the breed should be right for the farm, before sending all lambs into the Chitty scheme. "We cant breed our own replacements, because we cant get the ewes big enough. It is 1000ft up here, so we need a Highland breed," he explains.
So, to spread the risk and achieve the best margin on every lamb born at Whelan Farms, Mr Kilby also "works" the livestock market and store trade. About a quarter of the lambs will be sold through Kents Ashford market starting in June.
In the first week of August any lambs still on the farm are weaned. With grass growth drawing to a close, no lambs are sold again until the beginning of September. These are stores sold through Ashford, although an increasing number are fetching a premium as replacements. Prices are strong, averaging just over £30 a lamb for stores. *
Whelan Farms 1994 year performance
Gross margins/ewe (£)
Vet & Med2.802.802.80
Gross margin (/ewe)65.5860.7354.03
• 649ha farm size.
• 1100 ewes and quota (750 Mules, 250 Scotch half breds, 100 Suffolk x Mules).
• 180 dairy cows.
• 364ha arable.
• 142ha sheep perm pasture.
• 77ha dairy grassland.
• 24ha maize.
• Managed by Sentry Farming on contract basis for three years.
• Member of FABBL scheme.
• Member of LEAF.
Right: Marketing lambs through the Chitty Groups scheme has proved a useful and profitable exercise for Whelans manager Robert Kilby.
Above: Chitty tags go in at birth, ensuring carcass traceability and providing producers with feedback to improve performance.