On commercial sheep farms, the vast majority of output comes from the sale of prime lamb. Sheep farms will spend years trying to perfect the genetics of the flock, getting nutrition and grassland management correct, and trying to maximise the number of lambs making it to the point of sale. Therefore, it is important not to fall at the final hurdle. Marketing lambs to their best potential is critically important in order to maximise the profitability of the enterprise.

The main aim of the demonstration was to make farmers aware of the financial benefits of marketing lambs in the correct weight band. This is especially the case for this spring as weather conditions and grass growth have been much kinder than previous years. This means that lambs are growing well and in order to meet the broad market specification and achieve maximum value, there is a need for farmers to get in among lambs earlier than usual this year to begin drafting.

The Standard Quality Quotation (SQQ) specification covers prime sheep weighing from 25.5kg to a maximum liveweight of 45.5kg. Currently the price differential per kilo is 6.6% between lambs meeting the SQQ and those that do not. At this week’s market price, that is a difference of 14p/kg or over £6/lamb.

Figure 1 shows the proportion of prime sheep within the SQQ range at Scottish live auctions over the course of a year. When looking at the five-year average, the proportion of lambs within the SQQ range typically peaks in June, at around 90% and is at its lowest in October, averaging just 65%. Taking the average over the year, the past five years have seen an average of 81% of lambs achieving SQQ but last year this had fallen to 75%.

It comes as no surprise that the October low of 65% coincides with what is typically the lowest market price through the year (Figure 2). Selling lambs that don’t meet market specification into an already deflated market has a cumulative effect on the price achieved. At this point of the year, one in three lambs sold is out of specification. Proof that as an industry there is room for improvement in lamb marketing.

Drafting lambs

Often in the programme we see the first draft of lambs is happening too late on sheep farms – sometimes not occurring until lambs are weaned. At this stage, there is a proportion of lambs that are overweight and the first draft often sees lambs with a weight spread of up to 10kg liveweight.

In order to market lambs within specification and maximise their value at the height of the season, drafting needs to take place every 10 days to two weeks. Unfortunately, on farms with a large proportion of arable, harvest takes priority. Hill farms and those with significant seasonal grazings do not see sheep being gathered until later in the season, meaning that drafting is delayed. These all have a knock-on effect on the profitability of the sheep enterprise.

What to assess?

As outlined above, weight is key when drafting lambs. Provided they are on good grass and are fit and healthy – fat cover will not be an issue in many cases. According to Colin Slessor, deputy head of livestock at ANM marts, who did a practical demonstration of drafting lambs for slaughter, the loin is the first place to assess fat cover. You should feel a nice cover of flesh over the bone. If the bone is easily felt, the lamb may need additional time to reach the point of slaughter.

The tail head is the next area to assess. Again Colin stressed that the level of fat required by the marketplace is not what it used to be. Traditionally he looked for a full tail head that had a decent layer of fat on each side. Nowadays, though, once there is a sufficient warmth of fat cover in this area there will be no issues with fat cover.

One final area that Colin would assess is the ribs. Again, you are looking for a nice cover across the ribcage and it is important that individual ribs are not easy to distinguish.

While this is the ideal situation, Colin admitted that if farmers are running a large number of lambs through a race at one time, not every lamb is going to get this much attention. However, it is important to assess lambs every so often, with the loin his first point of call.

Clean livestock

Abattoirs have become much stricter regarding the cleanliness of lambs presented for slaughter over the past couple of years. While it can be difficult to manage, every step should be taken to present clean stock for sale.

The main risk is that fleece of lambs gets soiled during drafting or transport. This risk is significantly increased when lambs are transported with a wet fleece as a couple of lambs with loose dung can easily lead to a batch becoming soiled.

There is no easy solution when handling young lambs as options are more restrictive. The option of withdrawing feed before transport will help but will not entirely eliminate risks where lambs are being drafted off fresh grass. The advice is to withdraw feed for a minimum of eight hours and maximum of 12 hours before slaughter. This needs to take into account transport time and time spent in the lairage.

Moving sheep off fresh grass for a period in advance of transporting is likely to be the best option for lambs finished off grass as housing on an alternative feed source is less feasible for many. Water should not be restricted and animals should have access to clean water prior to transport.

Loading sheep with as dry a fleece as possible will also help greatly.