Accurate lamb selection and a quick turnaround are key to the profitability of Richard Whittington’s store lamb finishing business. Angela Calvert went to meet him.
Richard Whittington finishes more than 15,000 lambs a year with his father, George, at their farm on the outskirts of Nottingham.
Lambs are bought and sold almost every week of the year and sourced both privately off farm and from livestock markets. Most are sold to major processors but also to local wholesalers, butchers and a halal company.
Mr Whittington says: “We are usually selling 250 plus lambs a week. Most go deadweight, not because I have anything against livestock markets but, as we are continually buying-in, we are on a six-day standstill all the time. We have all types of lambs and need a variety of outlets and it is important to know where you can sell it before you buy it.”
The business had a major restructure nine years ago, as he explains: “Like many other people we bought-in store lambs and over-wintered them on root crops on rented land, selling them in February and March. We had good years and bad years but after a particularly bad year in 1996, we decided to have a rethink.
“We changed to a more intensive system of finishing everything inside at home which saves an enormous amount of time, rather than having to move fences and manage lambs on different pieces land in numerous locations. It also means we can handle them frequently, keep on top of costs and manage risk.”
The Whittingtons have 16 hectares (40 acres) of grass at home and rent another 73ha (180 acres) nearby. When lambs arrive they are turned out and fed ab lib from hoppers and then brought inside for the last week or two of finishing.
Mr Whittington says: “We have room for 700 inside and the sheds are full from September to April. We are fortunate as we are on sandstone land so can keep sheep out all year round. We can feed up to 1,000 in an hour, filling up hoppers with a feeder wagon.
“I like to turn them round in three weeks if possible, if kept for more than four weeks the cost is too high. I am looking for small margins and big numbers and it is important to understand costs. We try to buy to equate to the finished market.
“Everything is given a short retention wormer and a mineral drench on arrival and they go through a footbath once a week. We use 300 tonnes of 16 per cent protein pellets a year, bought in bulk on contract and 1,000 sheep will eat one tonne a day which comes back to, on average, 19p per sheep per day.
“We usually buy the more forward type of stores at the top end of the market but not necessarily extreme types. If the price is right we will buy any type of lamb. We also buy out of the finished ring at times and, in spring and early summer, will buy about 1,000 ewes and lambs to make use of surplus grass at the rented farm. We creep feed and finish lambs as soon as possible and then sell the ewes on again either finished or for breeding.
“Towards the end of the season any hoggs which are left are sheared to help them finish a bit quicker and some will be finished at grass.
If the price drops dramatically we will pull out the ewe hoggs to keep and sell for breeding later in the year.”
The last of the hoggs are sheared to help them finish on grass.
Richard Whittington buys sheep both privately and from livestock markets.
Lambs are handled regularly and Richard says he is looking for finish first and conformation second. “As soon as they are ready they are sold, which frees up time and land. It is all about exploiting the full potential of the lamb and it is inefficient to keep them to bigger weights. I am looking for price per kilo, not price per head.
“We sell most lambs at a carcase weight of 15-21kg averaging 18kg, with 95 per cent of them classifying 2 and 3L. This suits most markets and also does not take it over the price point of what the consumer is prepared to pay.
“We have to aim for the right finish on lambs, after all, we are meat producers and overfat lamb will inevitably turn consumers away.”
Mr Whittington also works part-time as a procurement officer for a major processor and has had experience with Eblex and their Better Returns Programme – in particular their Lamb Live to Dead selection days. So he was well qualified to take up the offer of a trip to the Falkland Islands earlier this year to train farmers there in lamb selection.
He says: “There are more than half a million sheep on the Falkland Islands which are bred mainly for their wool, with meat production secondary. The Islands are licensed to export to the EU and an abattoir was set up 12 years ago. However, farmers are only paid if their lambs are in spec and, with 74 per cent of lambs were not meeting the requirements, there was a real problem as there is no domestic outlet for these lambs.
At the request of the farmers, keen for some outside enterprise to address the situation, the Department of Agriculture and the Falkland Islands Meat Company approached the National Sheep Association for help, which was where Richard stepped in.
He says: “Most farmers there are running thousands of sheep and they do face huge logistical problems in terms of the weather and poor roads in getting lambs to the abattoir. The sheep are Merinos which do not have the best conformation but they will still finish properly and, although not classed as organic, they are naturally raised so there is a good story to sell. But in most cases, due to a lack of time and a lack of the necessary skills, farmers were literally loading lambs onto lorries without undertaking any sort of selection process.
“The wool price is back and the authorities are not prepared to subsidise the abattoir indefinitely, so steps had to be taken improve the situation.”
Mr Whittington ran a series of farm meetings, selection training and Live to Dead events at the abattoir. He says: “Most farmers admitted they either did not make the time or did not have the skills to select lambs properly, but they realised they were losing so much money by not getting paid for a large proportion of their lambs and they had to do something, so they were keen to listen to what I had to say.”
Richard’s training has certainly brought benefits to the Falkland farmers as he has been receiving grading sheets from the abattoir which reveal 98 per cent of the lambs at now meeting spec.
The latest Eblex figures show that 55.7 per cent of lamb carcases met the R3L or better specification required by key markets in 2014.
While this is a one per cent increase on 2013 it still means that more than 44 per cent of lambs are not meeting specifications. The data shows that more lambs were over-fat or out of spec when carcases weighed more than 20kg and suggests that at certain times of year lambs were held on to longer for them to put on weight which resulted in a greater percentage becoming over fat.
Steve Powdrill, Eblex national selection specialist says: “Farmers must understand what the end consumer wants and fat doesn’t sell.
Whatever system you are on its important to know when lambs are ready. They should be handled regularly if as they can alter dramatically especially in a good growing season. As they are getting nearer to being finished they should be handled at least fortnightly or if possible weekly.
“Handling is more important than weight and in summer the prices tend to drop week on week. The first margin is generally the best, a 16kg lamb can be worth more than a 19kg lamb a few weeks later. Farmers can have a fixation about lambs needing to be 43-44kg but in many instances, this is not the case, it all depends on genetic potential, weather, feed quality and what the market requires.
“We always see a lot of over fat lambs at the end of summer when farmers have been busy with other jobs and lamb selection is not a priority. In reality some of these would have been fit to sell many weeks earlier for a better price.
“Any procedures such as weaning or change of diet can cause setbacks so handle them before undertaking such tasks, you might be surprised to find that some are already fit and ready to sell straightaway without for example worming or bringing inside to finish.
“Lambs which are not sold as soon as ready will start to grow more frame again, so if you find a lamb with a big dock and raw on the back you have missed an opportunity and will have to wait until it finished again at a bigger weight and greater cost.”
Attend a live to dead selection event through Eblex and the Better Returns Programme or online at www.eblex.org.uk