Financial benchmarking completed by the College of Agriculture, Food and Rural Enterprise (CAFRE) on Northern Ireland sheep farms consistently highlights a strong correlation between weaning percentage and enterprise profitability.
A strong correlation also exists between stocking rate per hectare and margin per hectare. However, in each correlation, a cohort of farms who achieve both a high lambing percentage and a high stocking rate fail to convert this good physical performance to high levels of profitability.
Gareth Beacom, a Beef and Sheep Development Adviser at CAFRE said:
“Factors leading to poor profitability in these situations include a dependence on supplementary meal feeding and in cases where meal feeding is minimised, farmers failing to get sufficiently high performance from grass – leading to longer days to finish and lambs being sold at the bottom of the market.”
Annual lamb price cycle
Data gathered by DAERA for the years 2014 to 2020 shows the weekly price received per kilogramme shows an average decrease of £0.65 pence per kilo was recorded from the second week in June through to the second week in July.
Gareth Beacom continued: “In 2018 the price change over this period was £1.18 per kg whilst in 2016 it was only £0.04 per kg. No one can predict the highs and lows of lamb price in any given season, particularly this year, however, there is an established trend of price fluctuations which gives all lamb producers some scope to plan for the season ahead.”
Planning for marketing this year’s lamb crop for better returns
The first step to making a success of this year’s lamb sales is to review last year’s sales. Some key information needs reviewed and acted upon.
- When did lamb slaughter commence and finish?
- What percentage of lambs finished each month?
- What percentage of lambs required meal supplementation prior to slaughter?
- Was there sufficient grass available for ewes last autumn and early this spring?
“As a general rule of thumb a mid-season March lambing flock should aim to have at least 75 per cent of their lambs slaughtered by the end of September.”
“Although there may be increases in price thereafter, retaining lambs beyond this point is normally to the detriment of grass supply for tupping ewes and can limit the ability to defer any grazing for the following spring. Both of which lead to a vicious cycle of underperformance.”
“If the target of 75 per cent of lambs being slaughtered by the end of September was not achieved last year, then questions need to be asked as to why and what can be done differently this year in order to get lambs away earlier,” Gareth Beacom continued.
Potential from grass
A recent ‘grass to lamb’ project managed by Agrisearch demonstrated significant scope to increase the quantity of grass grown and grass utilised on sheep farms in Northern Ireland.
This project highlighted that a well-managed grass system has the potential to supply 90-95 per cent of a sheep flock’s nutritional requirements.
In mid-season prime lamb production where price pressure is likely to be downwards, it is essential to optimise lamb performance from grazed pasture to minimise costs and improve margins.
Pasture must be managed to maximise the proportion of leaf in the sward canopy, thus maintaining herbage digestibility and intake potential. This can be achieved by grazing swards to different residual heights during the grazing season.
Well managed set stocking systems can give similar individual lamb performance to rotational grazing systems. However rotational grazing systems allow greater grass utilisation and consequently stocking rates.
Rotational grazing also simplifies the removal of excess grass from the system during periods of rapid grass growth.
Gareth Beacom added: “A recent AFBI study highlighted that rotational grazing systems don’t have to be complicated.”
“When stocked at 14 twin lamb rearing ewes per hectare this study showed no difference in lamb performance on an eight paddock versus four paddock rotational grazing system. In fact, post-weaning lambs performed better on the four paddock system.
The creep feeding dilemma
Many studies have demonstrated that sufficiently high levels of performance can be achieved in single and double rearing ewes in grass only systems.
However, many farmers use supplementary creep both pre and post-weaning to improve growth rates, to overcome a grass deficit or make up for poor grass quality or poor management.
Whilst grass is obviously the cheapest and most cost-effective way of finishing lambs it is not always possible to finish all lambs off grass. Some areas will have less productive ground and swards than others.
Even when the grass is plentiful the quality of the grass will decrease as the year progresses. August 2019 was an example of how even with a plentiful supply of grass, high rainfall leading to reduced dry matter intakes left it difficult to get lambs finished within market specification on grass alone.
Research carried out Teagasc in Athenry has demonstrated the extra performance which can be achieved when supplementing lambs at different feed rates and under different grazing heights.
Gareth added: “Results show that under good grazing conditions (where sward height is maintained at 6cm) by moving from a zero-creep scenario to offering creep at 300g /lamb/day reduced average slaughter date by 28 days.”
“Assuming a lamb carcass of 20.0 kilos and a creep price of £280/tonne lamb price would need to be £0.38 per kilo higher when marketed 28 days earlier to break even. However, this doesn’t take into account the extra grass which the creep feeding would leave available, due to the substitution of grass with creep.”
“Where grass is scarce, and farmers carefully consider all costs, then creep feeding may be an option to complement good grassland management this year. Creep feeding can be discontinued once grass supplies recover.”
Where sufficient grass supplies are available creep grazing can deliver similar levels of performance to creep feeding without the additional costs.
Where the farm layout is suitable lambs can graze ahead of ewes in a 3-4 paddock rotational system. It has been shown to improve weaning weights by up to 2.0kg.
This system also offers the added advantage of being able to feed lambs in troughs rather than in creep feeders where the strongest lambs tend to consume the majority of concentrate.
It can be easiest achieved by placing the creep feeder beside a creep gate or placing the feeder at the other side of a creep gate to initially encourage forward grazing.
With good ground conditions, there are reports from Business Development Group members of some early reseeding work getting underway.
If reseeding is needed, then incorporating a forage crop such as rape or tyfon can give another option for finishing lambs in the summer months. These can be sown either on their own or undersown along with a grass reseed to provide a cost-effective alternative for finishing lambs.
While growth rates will not be significantly higher than you would expect of high-quality grazing, forage crops are generally dense in nutrients, with the leaves high in protein and the roots high in energy.
If a good establishment is achieved, then a high dry matter yield per ha is possible allowing a large number of lambs to be finished on a small area.
- Review last year’s lamb sales and drafting patterns;
- Maximising grass growth and utilisation as this will reduce costs and boost overall profitability;
- Where supplementation is required plan to avoid a worst-case scenario – high concentrate cost and low sale price;
- Consider creep grazing;
- Alternative forages offer an option if they can be incorporated into an existing reseeding plan.