(Penrith Farmers & Kidds)
A SEASON of surprises, says Richard Morris of this years sheep trade.
It has been a season when Mule ewe lambs have been worth as much as £12 a head more than last autumn.
"Doubly amazing," considering the £4/head drop in ewe premium and the low – and volatile – finished lamb values, says Mr Morris.
Last weeks auction at Lazonby, for example, saw values up £8 to average £63. Thats a 15% rise.
Among the 100,000 Mule ewe lambs sold by the company between August and October, the biggest price increase has come for the "running" lambs.
These are those that – "born later or higher up the hill" – will not be put to the ram this year.
"Demand for these has been fierce partly because a lot of farmers are locked in to an easy-care system. Theyll buy them, run them empty and sell them next year.
"Its not like fattening lambs, where you have to be continually monitoring them to get at the right weight at the right time.
"This is a low-input, low-management venture which does not, in some instances, even require the services of a shepherd."
Less increase in values has been seen for the stronger animals – those which were bought for tupping this season. Many of these have been changing hands for between £72 and £82 each.
"They will rear, say, one-and-a-quarter lambs each and will also be eligible for premium. They, too, represent a sound financial proposition because they can probably be sold next year as shearlings for £85 to £90." Overall, the plentiful grass supplies have been a major factor in the buoyant sheep trade, says Mr Morris.
"From Caithness to Cornwall, grass has been abundant. This has not happened for a long time – usually theres been a shortage somewhere in the country."
The ewe premium rules have also played a part. "People who have leased it out for two years have now had to produce against it – or forego it for lack of use.
"For some farmers, its a numbers game. They have premium for 500 sheep – so theyll keep 500 sheep."
A less important factor than many people have suggested, however, is the shift of interest away from cattle, says Mr Morris. "People who buy cattle in the autumn are neither equipped nor likely to switch wholesale to sheep."
The high cull ewe values back in the spring encouraged heavy culling, so theres been a big need for replacement stock.
Abundant grass supplies have, meanwhile, meant that farmers have not worried too much about getting sheep sold at the earliest possible opportunity.
Grass has been so long and lush that it hasnt been ideal, leaving sheep slow to finish.
Such factors mean the marketing pattern is about three or four weeks behind that typically seen. The price trend has been similarly affected.
"The seasonal low point in prime sheep traditionally comes in mid-October. But this year, values look set to remain at little over 100p/kg well into November.n
"A season of surprises."