Top spec lambs put Scots in good shape
Marketing lamb through a producer group has helped one Perthshire flockmaster meet premium specifications. Emma Penny reports
WORTHWHILE premiums for lambs killing out at top specs and rapid feedback of deadweight grades ensure Scottish producer groups are now the most successful of any procurement alternative.
So says David Mitchell, who farms 380ha (940 acres) at Pairney Farm, Auchterarder, Perthshire.
Mr Mitchell finishes about 2000 homebred lambs a year through Highland Glen Producers, and he is chairman of the Scottish Lamb Groups Forum, the collective meeting of all the marketing groups. "About 340,000 lambs have been sold through lamb groups in the year up to June 1997.
"The groups would consider themselves one of the best sources of lambs, with a high proportion meeting premium specifications of E, U, R, 2 or 3L."
Mr Mitchell says he would be disappointed if anything less than 90% of his lambs – and they are all sold through the group – met premium specifications. Throughout all the Scottish lamb groups, the proportion meeting top grades is about 80%.
"Our contracts mean it is worthwhile getting it right. Lambs grading E or U, 2 or 3L will earn a premium of 20p/kg over the Standard Quality Quotation, while those killing out at R 2 or 3L will receive 15p/kg over the SQQ.
"Our customers – who sell to supermarkets – want lambs up to 21kg deadweight. They will take heavier ones but, of course, the proportion of lean meat reduces as lambs become heavier," he says.
Mr Mitchell is keen to ensure that his lambs make top grades, and reckons a high proportion of his success is down to changing ewe and ram breeds.
Of the 1000 ewes at Pairney, about 250 are Blackfaces put to a Blue-Faced Leicester tup, while the 250 Mules, and 500 Texel x Mule ewes are put to Texel and Suffolk sires.
"Abattoir feedback quickly identified what produced the desired specification – lambs from Texel x Mule ewes. They are only slightly less prolific than Mules, and are hardier and easier to work with."
Increasing use of Texel tups has also helped, says Mr Mitchell. "The Texel seems to give us more latitude, particularly where we are producing three-quarter bred lambs. They can be on-farm for an extra week without becoming over-fat, which is an important factor when prices fall."
The aim at Pairney is to allow lambs to grow and mature before putting on condition. Consequently, lambs are sold after weaning. "Up until weaning we are effectively trying to produce a good store lamb."
Lambing at Pairney starts in mid-April, when the grass starts to grow. Ewes are lambed inside and turned out on to clean grazing as soon as possible. Stocking rate is fairly heavy, particularly on some of the hill land, with about 12 ewes and twins a hectare (five ewes and twin lambs an acre).
At weaning, in mid to late August, the first draw of singles is taken. The remaining lambs are dosed or dipped and put onto silage aftermath. After the withdrawal period has expired the next draw is taken, and this continues on a regular basis.
"That draw is the only one where lambs are likely to be over-fat. These will not have been ready at the first draw but the withdrawal period will have allowed them to become over-fat.
"Most producers will draw their own lambs. Going to the slaughter house afterwards is crucial. Unless you understand the difference between grades and see carcasses the figures do not mean much."
In autumn, the strongest lambs – weighing at least 30kg – are put on to kale or rape for finishing. The rest are on aftermath until November, then either finished off turnips, or grazed on nearby dairy farms. Lambs on both systems are offered ad lib concentrate.
"I like to sell lambs every 10 days or so throughout the winter, and usually sell 50-100 each time. They are handled regularly and are sold as they are ready. That is a factor in achieving good grades. If prices do fall, I can choose to remove feeders for a while to slow finishing rate."
Payment is also more secure as lambs sold through the groups are covered by credit insurance, a great benefit during the recent bankruptcy of Perth Fresh Meat, whom several groups supplied.
Even with increasing supermarket influence and their insistence on setting up producer groups, Mr Mitchell believes there is a strong future for marketing co-ops.
"The lamb groups fit to a T what the likes of Tesco are looking for. And we have got to the stage where abattoirs do not see us as a threat, we are an attractive and reliable source of high quality lambs." *
Perthshire producer David Mitchell sells through a producer group and would be disappointed if less than 90% of his lambs met premium specifications.
LAMB GROUP BENEFITS
• Attractive premiums.
• Credit insurance.
• Rapid abattoir feedback.