In time for the spring market

New Year, new life. Chris Berry reports on the attraction of early lambing for Yorkshire farmers.

The New Year is often a time when we think about getting a new job or a new house, but for some of Yorkshire's sheep farmers it's about new lambs. Whilst the lion's share of lambs are first seen in fields during March and April, there has been a growing trend in the past three decades towards lambs being born in December. The reasoning is down to good business practice, but not all of it relates directly to the lamb we traditionally eat more of in the springtime.

Charles Marwood runs a 600-700 flock of predominantly Charollais sheep at Foulrice Farm, Whenby, just north of Sheriff Hutton in North Yorkshire. It is a 230 acre farming operation and around this time of year his sheds are packed with ewes and newly-born lambs. He lambed over half of his flock during the first two weeks of December. The Charollais breed is noted as an 'eary-lamber' but there were other factors that didn't make life quite so straightforward this time around.

"It wasn't easy this year given the weather conditions," says Charles. "In fact, it was the coldest time we have had when lambing in December. Normally this is a kinder time than January. We lambed the bulk of the 360 ewes in just five days with temperatures down to minus 12 degrees. We weren't just meeting ourselves coming back with lambing, feeding and penning we were also spending hours a day thawing pipes out to make sure they all had water.

"It was a bit hectic and we had to bring in another local man to help out. I think we were all pretty much worn out but because we did most of it in a short spell we were there 24/7 and giving our full attention. That meant that we didn't lose a single lamb."

Charles started what is known as 'early lambing' over 30 years ago. His reasoning is partly down to the type of land where he farms with his son Stephen and wife Valerie. His daughter Deborah also works with them half the time as she runs her own herd of Galloway cattle with her husband, as well as running her own flock. But the strategy goes beyond the land. "We have heavy land here and if we get a dry springtime then that is all well and good, but last year it was so wet and cold. If we lamb early then it means we have less sheep out on the ground as they are all housed.

"We also try to bring the March lambing flock in as soon as we can. That way we have maximum grass coverage for the flock when it comes to the sheep grazing in the drier times in spring."

Whilst care for the land, environmental issues and good animal husbandry display a laudable attitude, it is the business imperative which drives those who lamb early. The market for lamb hits an annual peak at springtime and lambs born around now are for this market. "There is always a strong demand for spring lamb. It is tender, succulent and has a wonderful flavour. It is traditionally seen as an Easter dish but its peak is usually two or three weeks after Easter." But there is another market which Charles is also aiming for. Lambs are also born to provide future stock. Ram lambs, can sell from a couple of hundred to a couple of thousand pounds each. The best of the ewe lambs are kept as replacements for ewes that have either reached the end of their reproductive cycle or are not performing to expectations. Ram lamb sales, particularly those for Charollais sheep, take place each July. The breed society allows lambs to be born only from December 1 each year, in order to create a reasonably level playing field between breeders. The closer Charles gets to his lambs being born inside the first couple of weeks in December, the greater the chance that his will look amongst the biggest when the ram lamb sales come along.

"We're looking at achieving an average minimum sale price of our ram lambs at around 350, and we might get between 2000 to 3000 for some of them. If we lamb in early December, we find that we don't have to push them to get them where they need to be in July." He used to lamb during Christmas-time and around the New Year and he is pleased that he doesn't any longer.

"The worst year we had was when we had 25 ewes lambing on Christmas Day. That wasn't good for a family Christmas. The way we have organised our lambing now is much more concentrated. It might be hard but it is also better on balance for both us and the sheep."

One of Charles' two sons and his daughter are involved in sheep farming, but he fires a warning shot about the industry. "The national flock has declined somewhere between three to five percent in recent years. The past two years have seen better prices but there was a period when lambs were only making around 50-55. You can't turn a lamb out as a finished lamb at that sort of money and make a proper margin.

"We have a lack of young people coming into the industry and if there isn't a sound financial return to attract them we will see even more disappearance of flocks."

EARLY LAMBING – THE FACTS

Charollais sheep, first imported in 1976, are noted early lambers. Many Down or Lowland sheep are regarded as suitable early lambers including the Hampshire Down. Historically, lamb prices have been highest during the first half of the year, especially during the Easter period, so lambs born in winter usually sell for a higher price. But overhead costs are higher and mastitis, scours, and pneumonia tend to be bigger issues with early lambing when sheep are confined into smaller areas. Early-born lambs usually grow faster than those born later in the year, but their cost of gain is usually higher.

CW 1/1/11