Steve Powdrill, AHDB Beef & Lamb National Selection Specialist
With UK sheep production forecast to rise this year, ensuring lambs are marketed when they reach target specification is more important than ever if producers are to get the best returns for their livestock.
This was the message from AHDB Beef & Lamb chairman Adam Quinney and AHDB MI analyst Mark Kozlowski at last week’s AHDB Outlook Conference. At the event it was revealed that the number of lambs being sent to slaughter which met the Standard Quality Quotation (SQQ) specification was lower in 2015 than in previous years, causing renewed concern that producers are holding on to lambs for longer in order to get better prices.
AHDB Beef & Lamb data shows that the proportion of lambs going to slaughter over-fat tends to increase through the autumn and winter. While the motivation for doing this is clear, it is essential that producers sell lambs when they are ready. This means when they have the ideal finish level for the specified outlet.
The date when lambs are ready can vary widely each season, especially with improved breeding and grassland and feed management so don’t wait until a special set date when they are normally sold. The weather also has a role to play, with higher proportions of leaner lambs tending to come through when the weather conditions are poor.
More than 80% of meat buyers are looking for lambs that classify R3L, so while there is a market for lambs that fall outside this area, it comes at a price. Producers must stay focused on the end product - holding on to lambs so they put on more weight and fat is likely to sway the consumer into choosing other proteins, such as chicken, in this already very difficult market.
Keeping lambs on farm for longer can also be costly for the producer. While the additional cost of feeding the lamb will vary depending on the production system, there will undoubtedly be some increase. This will be exaggerated by the fact that the larger lambs get, the more food will be required to maintain body mass, let alone increase it. It’s also important to note that putting on fat requires almost four times more feed energy than putting on muscle.
The best way to select lambs is to frequently weigh and handle them, ensuring each animal has reached its full potential and target specification. Producers should be aiming for 18-21kg deadweight (38-44kg liveweight). Follow market signals and seasonal trends, about which there is plenty of information available on the AHDB Beef & Lamb website.
Coupled with getting the best fat-to-flesh ratios, achieving conformation targets is also essential to maximise returns. Conformation is often dictated by the breed of the lamb, so farmers must recognise when the optimum period is for selling their particular breed and, again, handle lambs to ensure they are on target.
For more information on selecting lambs for slaughter, watch our video, Lambs before and after slaughter - controlling fat cover with the consumer in mind, or read our BRP manual, Marketing Prime Lambs for Better Returns.