By Peter Grimshaw
FEW and far between still sums up the availability of new-season lambs in auction markets, with numbers forward at many centres too small to create a meaningful trade.
But the leading retailers have been selling spring lamb for several weeks, bought deadweight.
Auction market prices nudging 128p/kg are 5-6p/kg below last years levels, but on similar, relatively low numbers.
However, that runs contrary to market logic, in the light of fewer offerings, higher exports and reduced carry-over of hoggs, year-on-year.
“Trends in live and deadweight markets are not always the same,” says the MLCs Lesley Green.
Total slaughterings of hoggs in the first weeks of 2000 are 7% down on last year, according to the MLC.
January to March totals this year ran at 3.6m, compared with 4m in 1998 and 1999.
This marks a return to a more normal seasonal pattern, after two exceptionally large carry-over years.
Export – the other element in the equation – is going well, despite the continuing strength of sterling.
France is back in the reckoning, in contrast to poor levels of uptake in 1999, and this is contributing to shipments which are 12-14% higher than last year.
But a kind winter, easy lambing and good prospects of early grass have failed to help producers. Their decisions about spring lamb selling were made last autumn.
After at least two years bad years, says Mrs Green, they are looking at what is cost effective, rather than scoring Brownie points for early sales.
The later they leave it, however, the more chance there is that they will find competition on the cold counter.
Chilled New Zealand lamb is being stocked alongside British produce by most supermarkets, says Richard Cullen, of the MLC.
“Last year, a number of retailers pulled back their New Zealand sales quite sharply, and they lost sales volume as a result,” he says.
“The lamb price was quite strong at this time last year.”
But he does not think that NZ lamb is likely to have much impact on the volume of UK-produced early spring lamb sold.