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Weather knock-on for lamb finishers

A look ahead to making the most of this year’s lamb crop as sheep farmers across the country emerge from a tough start to 2018. 

Hannah   Park

Hannah   Park

The delayed spring and bad weather could not have come at a worse time for sheep farmers with young lambs on the ground or those the midst of lambing.


The persistent cold and wet conditions has delayed turnout on many farms, with concerns mounting over the knock-on effect this will have on this year’s breeding crop.


Described as a ‘desperate situation’ by NSA Scottish region office holder and sheep farmer George Milne, he says it will take a lot for ewes to recover condition following the ‘coldest, wettest spring for many years’.


“Initial reports from across Scotland are saying ewes are leaner, with more udder problems, twin lamb disease and a lack of milk thanks to minimal grass,” says Mr Milne.


"For those with young lambs on the ground during the snow, there were losses, and now there are concerns about how many lambs ewes will manage to rear.”


Mr Milne also highlights the scarcity of forage, hay and haylage, which has meant what is available has become very expensive to buy-in.


"Sheep farmers have had to buy-in more concentrate feed, also at big costs."


He also says hill ewes lambing later are likely to be leaner and lambing percentages will be hit as a result.


"The whole lamb crop will be down and adult sheep will need the summer to recover."


Looking at some of the positives, Mr Milne says market prices have been strong since February.


"They are at a level where they should be for farmers to make money which has been encouraging for lamb finishers. Let us hope we see a dry summer, for our livestock but also for our own well being after such a tough few months.”


With lambs on the ground approaching eight weeks old in parts, this is a good point to assess progress and make decisions on weaning and feeding inline with the challenging season, according to AHDB’s Nerys Wright.


She says: “Weighing lambs at eight weeks of age provides a good indication of how well ewes have been lactating.


“Doing it at this point instead of waiting until weaning will mean a measurement of a ewes maternal ability on early lamb growth can be taken and farmers have more time to react and plan."


A sheep key performance indicators (KPI) project funded by AHDB Beef and Lamb suggested a target of 20kg per lamb at eight weeks old.


Lambs which struggled to achieve 20kg by eight weeks continued to miss weaning targets (30kg at 12 weeks old) and were the last to finish.


Ms Wright says this point is also a good time to check ewe body condition score (BCS), which will allow weaning dates to be altered according to the results.


“If at eight-weeks ewes are thin and lambs are light, it might be appropriate to consider weaning earlier,” she says.

“The gut reaction is normally to leave lambs on the ewe for longer in this situation, but it could actually cause ewes and lambs to compete for food and mean ewes will struggle to put condition back on and lambs will struggle to gain weight and finish."


Ms Wright advises a target weaning age of 12 weeks, but says this could be brought back a week or two.


And if considering bringing creep into a lamb finishing diet, introducing it earlier could mean better feed conversion rates.


“At three to four weeks of age, lambs will convert feed at a ratio is 3:1, so will need to eat 3kg for every 1kg gained. As it gets later in the year, towards November and December, this can rise to 7:1.” (See table below).


“Those considering adding creep into a finishing diet may consider when they want to get lambs away by and introduce creep earlier to get the best feed conversion rates.


“This might be done by feeding certain age groups, certain fields or batches as an alternative to blanket feeding the whole lamb crop.”


Allowing flexibility year on year as to when lambs are sold off the farm could also attract better returns says Ms Wright.


“The grass situation could have changed hugely by the autumn.


“But in a situation where ewes and lambs are competing for grass in the back end of the year, longer-term financial returns could be improved by selling lambs off the farm as stores, especially if relying on costly, bought-in feed as the only option to get older lambs, running at a higher feed conversion rate, finished in the back-end. If selling to a lighter lamb market is an option, this might also be considered as a way to get lambs away earlier.”


The lack of grass and forage on many farms has seen demand for concentrate feed rise by 10-15 per cent on the year, according to Dugdale Nutrition’s Bill Hardman.


He says: “Alongside the poor spring, recent upturn in market prices has meant producers are willing to feed, but people have probably creep fed more young lambs due to poor grass quality and delayed turnout.


“It is a cost to the industry at the moment, but it might work out fine because the added creep feed will mean farmers can get lambs, or the beginning of their crop, away sooner.


Dr Elizabeth Berry, director at Animax Veterinary, says the cold weather is also affecting the uptake of trace elements, and in addition to the limited growth, nutritional value of grass is much lower than normally expected at this time of year.


“Sheep and cattle are at high risk from soil contamination at grazing this spring, particularly from soil splash. Taking in more soil in the diet can result in an increase in antagonists – other compounds which affect uptake and availability of minerals in the diet.


“In current conditions, the key antagonists affecting trace elements may be more significant. For example, the key copper antagonists are iron, molybdenum and sulphur which reduce the availability of dietary copper.


“Alongside this, low levels of essential macro minerals like magnesium can result in grass staggers or grass tetany. More conditions like white muscle disease, where a lack of selenium and vitamin E can be factors, may also be seen due to additional stresses on animals, particularly the young.”



Example sensitivity analysis comparing concentrate price and FCE on margin per lamb


FCE (kg gain:kg concentrate)







Concentrate price (£/t)






















Source: AHDB Beef & Lamb


Sheep outlook figures

AHDB sheep outlook figures for April 2018 suggest a 6 per cent reduction in the lamb crop on the year, falling back by about nine lambs per 100 ewes as a national flock average. This makes it the smallest lamb crop since 2013.


The higher number of old season lambs forecast to be slaughtered in the first five months of this year compared with 2017, means clean sheep slaughterings for the first quarter of 2018 grew 6 per cent year-on-year to include the Easter kill period.


Despite this, clean sheep slaughterings as a whole are forecast a decline of just 1 per cent year-on-year, due to the number of old season lambs forecast to be killed during the first five months of 2018.


AHDB says slaughter seasonality is then forecast to return to a more typical pattern which would reduce the percentage of the crop slaughtered in the following year (January to May 2019), although the lamb crop is also expected to be smaller. Carcase weights are forecast to remain reasonably steady, in-line with the long-term trend.


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