SET FAIR FOR
THE best prime lambs sold deadweight each week from the Ritter familys flock of Dutch Texels are as good as those they will be selecting for next weeks National Primestock Show.
"Lambs for primestock showing should reflect the demands of the commercial market," says Eugen Ritter, one of the most consistently successful exhibitors of prime lambs and carcasses, who has taken five supreme championships at the Bingley Hall show in the last 10 years as well as several carcass titles.
There are 1300 ewes, predominantly pure Dutch Texel, at the Ritters Perry Foot Farm, Peak Forest, near Buxton, Derbyshire. The farming partnership comprises Eugen and Margaret Ritter – who undertake the showing – Valdemar and Anne and third brother Horst and brother-in-law Tom Heyward who run another unit.
Land at Perry Foot rises to 440m (1450ft) and also carries 120 suckler cows. All stock produced on this 323ha (800-acre) Peak District farm are sold finished.
Despite having maintained an enviable run of wins at the countrys leading primestock shows for many years, Mr Ritter does not set aside a special group of ewes to produce his show lambs.
Apart from an early lambing flock of pedigree Dutch Texels, all the commercial ewes lamb in April. "We are not in any hurry to draw lambs and dont start selling in quantity until the autumn." Lamb weights range from 35-45kg.
Because of a heavy workload on the farm this year caused by a new building programme, Mr Ritter and his wife Margaret are only showing one pair of pure-bred lambs at the National Primestock Show but they have entries in the three lamb carcass classes.
It wasnt until late October that 40 of the best lambs were pulled out of the main flock for a few weeks of special treatment. "But its nothing too fancy. Our special treatment just means chopped swedes, housing overnight and a bit of corn during the last fortnight. These Dutch Texel lambs are a great butchers lamb by design!"
Straight from the field
And the Ritters believe their lambs ideally suit the demands of the primestock show-ring – they have even been known to draw an occasional show lamb straight out of the field. "The standard of lambs at Bingley Hall is always extremely high. When we draw lambs Ill be looking for well-developed gigots, a good loin and firm, hard, fleshing.
"These Dutch Texels have tremendous natural growth and fleshing. In the old days, with native breeds that would be running to fat by late summer, the showmen used to drop them down in condition and then use all their feeding skills to bring lambs back to "12 oclock" for show day.
"Lambs were fed as hard as they could be and the fatter they were the more chance they had of winning. It wasnt until the 1970s that we started to see changes in the type of lamb the trade wanted and thats now reflected in the show-ring."
The Ritter family partnership says the standard of competition is now much higher and judges are more rigorous in their evaluation. Mr Ritter describes assessment of fat cover by feeling the spinal processes as "the laying on of hands".
"If the spinal processes felt like your finger tips the lamb was too thin; it they felt like your knuckles it was just right but if they felt like your flat hand it was too fat.
"The Dutch Texel needs to be judged in a very different way. You wouldnt base your assessment of a pigs carcass on the fat covering its spinal processes and likewise for the Dutch Texel."
Mr Ritter says its more important to evaluate the lamb by the "groove" down its back and the prominence of the eye-muscle rising up above the spinal processes on either side.
"If you can feel the spinal processes the lamb is not carrying too much fat but equally its not got too much lean meat either."
The Ritters question the emphasis placed on the length of lambs. They say the desire to produce a carcass with "an extra chop" must be questioned. "The consumer isnt concerned about how many chops you can get off the carcass. Length is something that is driven by the trade but the trade depends on consumers for its existence. If other more important factors are ignored in favour of length then consumers will vote with their feet.
"The consumer is only concerned with how much meat there is on the chops she buys. If she doesnt get good value shell switch to other red meats."
Along with feeling the back and the tail-dock as a guide to the level of finish, lamb judges at the National Primestock Show will be taking fullness of the gigots into account.
"If lambs are to satisfy todays market they cant afford to have two hind legs that look like a pair of carrots. Judges, just like the commercial trade, want legs that look like turnips with a full gigot at the top."
Trimming lambs for primestock showing also needs to change to accentuate the true carcass value of lambs.