PRIME LAMBS LIVE-DEAD A HARD TASK…
The butchers live-dead lamb section at Smithfield is one of the most coveted awards among sheepmen, as judge
John Hall explained to Jeremy Hunt
NO individual championship captures the ethos of showing prime lambs more than the butchers live-dead section at Royal Smithfield where quality on the hoof and on the hook combine to produce one of the most coveted awards among sheep showmen.
And stepping into the limelight to sort out the live entries in this section will be Cumbria farmer John Hall, whose last visit to Olympia in 1998 saw him take the butchers live-dead championship with Beltex-sired lambs bred on the familys farm at Inglewood Edge, Dalston near Carlisle.
And it was a debut victory that has become something of a habit.
"It was 13 years ago that we showed lambs for the first time at the Scottish Winter Fair and won the championship. And our Smithfield live-dead championship win was achieved on our first visit to Olympia. Its a classic case of first-time lucky", jokes John who farms in partnership with his brother Peter.
Competition is intense in the butchers live-dead class which draws entries from the countrys leading sheep producers. Breeding plans to specifically produce lambs for this section will have been made over a year ago followed by careful selection of the show team during early autumn and then weeks of meticulous feeding and preparation.
Pen of three
Each entry consists of a pen of three lambs. Two are judged on the hoof – and thats Mr Halls job at this years show – while a third lamb is randomly selected, slaughtered and assessed on carcass quality. The highest combined score from the live-dead judging produces the champion pen.
To clinch the championship on a first appearance and in such a fiercely competitive section of the show gives more than a hint about the high standards the Hall brothers set themselves as prime lamb producers.
The partnership runs two farms – Inglewood Edge and nearby Eyecott Farm, Berrier – and as well as a suckler herd of 500 cows there are 1750 Swaledale ewes bred pure, a flock of around 500 Beltex-cross and Dutch Texel-cross ewes run commercially (including a proportion bred out of North Country Cheviots) plus a further 600 North Country Cheviots.
All the Beltex and Dutch Texel cross ewes are away wintered in Norfolk – a policy that has been followed for many years.
"It gets sheep off the farm for the winter and although its a long haul to Norfolk it is something that has worked well for us.
"These ewes are tupped while they are in Norfolk but they travel back in-lamb in the spring. The Texel ewe has a reputation for being very resilient and she takes the whole process in her stride," says Mr Hall.
The farms suckled calves are sold at the main sale at Carlisle in March which makes cattle sheds available for indoor lambing in April. The first prime lambs are drawn in July with the main marketings starting in August with lambs at 38-42kg. Most are sold through Longtown market.
"But we always keep a fair number back for the winter to give us enough lambs to select from for the primestock shows. Like everyone who shows lambs, you need to have a decent selection to choose from. It isnt easy to get lambs that match and also fit the weight ranges of the classes unless you have the numbers to draw from.
"We are not all-conquering at this show game but I like to think that we can hold our own," says Mr Hall.
But he is a staunch supporter of primestock showing and refutes any suggestion that the type of lambs that carry off the top tickets are a far cry from what most grass-roots sheep farmers can produce week-on-week for their own prime lamb market.
"What the major primestock shows provide is an opportunity to see just how good it can get. Its a spectacle of excellence, a chance for farmer-exhibitors to produce the ultimate lambs as they strive for perfection in breeding, feeding and management.
"But there is a strong commercial message too. Olympia will be full of lambs of outstanding quality and there are lots of lessons we can all learn from seeing just what potential we have as producers to continue improving the quality of UK lamb.
"A show like Smithfield still has a vital role to play in maintaining standards in the way we all produce our primestock. Its only by pitching yourself against the best that you find out how good you are."
Double Texel crosses, often with a splash of Beltex, are the breeding components that many now favour in the quest to produce a winner of the Smithfield butchers lamb class. But is this type of lamb a commercial proposition that can be profitably produced in numbers?
Mr Hall believes it is and thats why the family have favoured a crossing programme for their commercial ewe flock based on the carcass qualities of the Dutch Texel and Beltex. But there are disadvantages.
"Compared with a ewe like the Mule, the type of Texel-cross ewe we are running produces fewer lambs – say 160% or just over. And feeding and management are more critical at tupping and lambing time – the last thing you need is to overfeed these ewes."
Another criticism often levelled at prime lambs produced from this breeding, and increasingly when under the influence of the Beltex, is the inability to gain an extra few kilos.
But Mr Hall disagrees. "I do not see that the weight issue is a problem. If, when lambs by some terminal sire breeds are making £38 and one of our 40kg lambs can make £40-£42 there is no argument."
But when Mr Hall steps into the ring at Smithfield it will be the lambs that meet his judging criteria, irrespective of breed, that will be pulled forward into the line-up.
"Ill be feeling for flesh and not waste and will only tolerate an acceptable level of fat at this top level of competition. It is often very difficult to discern the exact level of fat but lambs of this calibre must be firm to the touch.
Shape of loin
"Ill be looking for lambs with a loin that stretches to as near to the front of the sheep as possible and keeps its regular form and I want conformation in the hindquarter where the high value cuts will come from."
Tails too, said by some judges to be the ultimate indication of a lambs fat cover, will be under close scrutiny by Mr Hall. "Ill want to feel the individual joints in the tail. If I cant, then there is always the suggestion that the lamb may be carrying too much finish."
Mr Hall recognises the skill and effort that exhibitors will have put into their lambs to achieve the high standards demanded by the butchers live-dead section.
"To have the right lambs, in the right condition, have all three at noon on the day – and for them all to match – is asking a lot. And like all showing, when youve managed to get all that right you still need your fair share of good luck," he says. *
Above: Dutch Texel x North Country Cheviot lambs – white-faced lambs in foreground. Right: John hall sorting lambs for market.