Thursday, December 7, 2023

Tactics for tough times as lamb prices dive

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Farmers Weekly speaks to a farm systems scientist about the decisions facing sheep farmers.
Import demand from China will likely improve from mid-2023, supporting lamb and mutton farmgate returns in spring and summer.
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The schedule is down, the dry is setting in and forecasts are not looking good, making for some tough calls for farmers selling lambs this season.

Is it better to sell lambs as store or try to finish them is the big question, Canterbury-based farm systems scientist Tom Fraser said. 

When to sell lambs can be a more complex decision than it appears, and putting on more weight is not always the most profitable choice.

“Sheep and beef farms have extremely complicated systems. They can have eight or 10 different classes of stock on the farm at any one time, all requiring different levels of feed and different management.

“Each farmer can be quite different in what they are trying to achieve in that system across multiple stock classes.

“Key is autumn to winter – you have got to set up for spring. Spring is the most important time in the sheep and beef system to make money, so the goal must be spring feed supply and how you feed productive animals in late winter into spring. 

 “It comes back to tactics for tough times. The real problem right now is it was too good last year,” Fraser said.

The warning of El Niño has been out there. Now it’s starting to get dry, it is going to be dry in dry-prone regions and what to do at weaning really does come back to individual farmer priorities.” 

He said this is a decision every commercial sheep breeder needs to make at weaning and in many cases, it might be better to sell lambs as store and focus on ewe production for the following year.

“If feed is limited, there is competition between sale lambs (this year’s income); breeding ewes (next year’s income); and ewe lamb replacements (future income).” 

All this is compounded by falls and lifts in the schedule and there’s no indication of any significant lifts on the horizon. 

“The whole farm system must be considered and it may be for some framers they are better selling store lambs and looking after next year’s production.

“It can be a case of holding on and holding on, striving to get the best return with that extra 2kg in weight, but that usually means taking the lambs through into December. 

“You may do it, but you may well be compromising the ewes and next season’s production.” 

If a large proportion of the lamb crop is sold at weaning, more feed will be available for ewes, and ewe performance will lift as a result.

This would mean better performance over the following lambing, increased pre-weaning growth rates and a higher proportion of the lamb crop being sold prime at the weaning draft. 

“Rule of thumb can be it takes about a month post weaning to match the value of the lamb at weaning.”     

It’s about breaking the light lamb chain by selling a large proportion of the lamb crop as stores at weaning.

By selling lambs as store, farmers are able to better manage the extra feed into their ewes over mating and during pregnancy, so they wean heavier lambs the following season.

“It could be tough, it is a difficult balancing act, but farmers need to prioritise for their own farm systems, management and overall business operation.”

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