By Kirsten Williams, SAC Consulting beef and sheep consultant

The lamb trade has been exception for a number of months and has left some producers questioning when they should market this year’s lamb crop – over the summer/autumn or at the early spring peak, next year.

The phenomenal trade in the first half of the year has been driven by many domestic and global factors, such as limited supply, a greater demand, a favourable exchange rate and international trade. These variables cannot be planned and can in fact go against us, like in 2019 (see orange in GB finished lamb prices graph).

Hitting the market at the peak means lambs are on the holding considerably longer, and each day they are on the farm they are eating feed supplies which could be allocated to the breeding ewes or replacements.

Extra lambs on a holding throughout the winter can also mean grass isn’t getting the recommended break over the winter, making spring growth slow. Both of these impact on the performance of the breeding ewe, which then have a major knock on to the performance of the next lamb crop.

There is also a greater chance that the lambs would be of a heavier weight, resulting in penalties for being out of specification, being over fat and the feed costs being higher per kg of meat produced. A lamb converts more efficiently the younger it is, with 4:1 being achieved up to weaning. This then rises to 12:1.

Looking at the last few years’ data, there has been an increase in value in the new year, with some years more significant than others. But what cost can you put on having early spring grass and ewes in the correct condition for late pregnancy?

SQQ Start September SQQ Start of March Increase in Value Per lamb (21kg)

2020 Lamb Crop 457.5p/kg (2020) 615.3p/kg (2021) 157.8p/kg £33.14

2019 Lamb Crop 386.6p/kg (2019) 530.9p/kg (2020) 144.3p/kg £30.30

2018 Lamb Crop 424.8p/kg (2018) 415.5p/kg (2019) 9.3p/kg £1.95

Forage crops do offer a solution for overwintering lambs, they are nutritional and high yielding, and offer benefits of crop rotation in grassland farms.

They require little labour and a good electric fence, but these should not be overstocked, and a contingency plan should be in place for extremely wet or snowy winters.

One hectare of swedes yielding 9t/ha DM could hold roughly 357 lambs per month, with an estimated establishment cost of £500/ha equating to a cost of £5.60 for a four-month period (November-February). Plus additional forage, veterinary and medicines, mortality and labour.

Away wintering is another solution at perhaps £20/head for the winter, plus the haulage, additional vet/med and time to check the lambs which, in hindsight, doesn’t leave much margin – if any.