WORK NEEDED ON PROVIDING CLEAN LAMBS
Giving lambs on roots access to an area of grass or dry ground will help ensure they are clean, says Tescos producer group manager Chris Ling.
Ensuring finished lambs are clean is becoming increasingly important, but how can it be achieved? Jeremy Hunt reports
SUPERMARKETS realise the practical difficulties of keeping root-finished lambs in clean condition, but they urge farmers to make every effort to present lambs to a high standard of cleanliness this winter.
Chris Ling, Tescos producer group manager, says lambs finished on roots should ideally have a clean run back area to allow them to lie and rest in dry conditions.
"Giving lambs access to an area of grass or dry ground would help a great deal, but it is not the complete answer," says Mr Ling.
He believes the issue of achieving clean lambs during the winter marketing period needs more research and investment.
New Zealand systems of washing sheep before they are slaughtered is one way of meeting hygiene standards, but according to Mr Ling, a balance has to be struck between meeting these standards and not putting stock under extra stress just prior to slaughter.
"At this stage all we can say to producers is that we would like them to make every effort to present their lambs in as clean a state as possible. These are the guidelines we issue to farmers selling us lambs through producer groups, but our buyers at markets are also trying to source lambs that are well presented," says Mr Ling.
Tesco kills around 15,000 lambs a week, and though an increasing percentage will be sourced deadweight through producer groups working closely with the supermarket, a large number of lambs are still bought liveweight.
"As we develop our lamb producer groups we hope to draw up guidelines that will help farmers meet higher standards of hygiene in lambs presented for slaughter. Its an issue that we all have to address but we intend to work closely with producers and the rest of the industry to achieve workable practices," he says.
Thousands of lambs are finished on roots throughout Cumbria each winter and a large percentage find their way through the sale rings of auctioneers Penrith Farmers and Kidds.
Stuart Bell, auctioneer at Kirkby Stephen, believes dirty lambs could face heavy price penalties this winter as buyers show their clear preference for lambs that dont bring half the field with them into the market.
"Its going to be an important issue this winter, and I think we will see dirty lambs make less money. It will be in farmers interests to do all they can to present lambs to a high standard," says Mr Bell.
Growing roots and folding lambs on to them is a traditional Cumbrian system that is integrated into the cropping rotation of many mixed farms. If it is to continue there has to be a compromise that will retain the benefits of growing roots, provide feed for lambs, but also reduce the risk of lambs becoming dirty and less attractive to buyers.
The option increasingly followed is to gather and draw lambs one to two weeks before the sale and to take them off the roots. Moving them onto a grass field will allow lambs to dry off; turnips can be mechanically harvested and chopped and fed in troughs.
"Its working for a lot of producers, and I think we will see this system more widely used this season. Last winter, we had thousands of lambs through the market that had been switched to this system and they came through the ring in good, clean order," says Mr Bell.
Some producers are said to be considering folding on to turnips for the early part of the winter, then switching to grass fields and feeding chopped turnips in troughs.
The biggest difficulty is caused when fleeces become balled-up as a result of extremely muddy conditions, which is not easy to rectify.
"Clipping out the belly wool before lambs are turned on to roots, then clipping belly wool and crutching-out prior to sale are options that some producers may consider, but they may not always be practical.
"Everyone I speak to is aware of the need to present lambs as clean as they can this winter," says Mr Bell.
New Zealand systems have come in for much talk in Cumbria. The Kiwis tackle dirty lambs by driving them into large swimming areas of warm water, after which the lambs are sprayed with cool water and then stood on slats to dry, using warm air blown from below.
Large-scale finisher Andrew Sayer, Town End Farm, Hackthorpe, Penrith, hadnt heard of the New Zealand approach but was making every effort to ensure his two main deadweight buyers received his lambs in a clean condition.
"Last winter we didnt need to take any lambs off roots until February when we switched to a grass field and fed turnips chopped in troughs.
"The aim is not to let them get too dirty before you need to act," says Mr Sayer.
He is not convinced that a dry lie-back area is a good idea. "To keep lambs growing you need to keep them eating roots and at the feed hoppers. Encouraging lambs to a dry area is going to have an effect on feed intake and growth rate."
Clipping out the belly wool is an option Mr Sayer is considering, but last year he had no complaints from his buyers about his lambs.
"Hauliers like lambs penned for two hours before they load. We may consider bringing them under cover during this period to ensure they leave the farm in the best possible condition."n
Moving finishing lambs off roots and onto grass well before sale, where they are offered chopped roots in troughs, is an increasingly popular option.
• Consider clean run-back area.
• Move onto grass before sale, feed roots in troughs.
• Clip belly wool and crutch.