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Stores lambs – weighing up the options

At this time of year many farms that run a breeding ewe flock are assessing their options for the remaining lambs on the farm. Damian Costello, Teagasc Sheep Specialist, discusses preparing a budget, targeting cheap weight gain from grass, and estimated slaughter date.

At this time of year many farms that run a breeding ewe flock are assessing their options for the remaining lambs on the farm. In particular with a buoyant store lamb trade many will be asking themselves the question whether to sell stores or finish their remaining lambs. Factors to take into account include number and weight of remaining lambs, estimated time to finish, availability of grass, suitable housing if needed to finish indoors as well as cash flow/credit situation. On the purchasing side, farms that run a store lamb finishing enterprise are figuring out what they can afford to pay for stores and still allow for a decent margin on their investment. The three main factors that determine the profit margin in finishing lambs are:

  • Price of store lambs
  • Cost efficiency of carcass gain during finishing period
  • Increase in price being paid for lamb carcass when lambs are due to finish

Prepare a budget

Whether finishing homebred lambs or buying in lowland or hill lambs to finish the first important step is to have a plan in place. A useful tool to estimate the cost of finishing store lambs as well as predicting when lambs will be fit for market is the Teagasc Store Lamb calculator. This excel programme allows you to input figures such as weight and price of lambs, concentrate price per ton as well as standard costs for veterinary, transport etc. The estimated finish date along with total concentrate required will be calculated with slaughter value of lamb being based on historic prices paid in previous years on the estimated slaughter date. The programme is currently being updated and will be available again shortly on www.teagasc.ie or from your local Teagasc adviser. The biggest cost in the system is concentrate supplementation. Aim for high quality ingredients and ensure the feed is specifically intended for intensive finishing lambs, that it is balanced for minerals and includes 0.5% ammonium chloride to help avoid issues with urinary caluli. Most finishers will look for a good value for money commercial ration in pelleted form. The pelleted feed is less attractive to birds and avoids lambs sorting and selectively leaving behind certain ingredients as can potentially happen with a coarse ration. There is an opportunity for significant savings per ton where buying in bulk is an option.

Target cheap weight gain from grass

Consider the implications of keeping store lambs will have on overall grass demand into the Autumn. If we assume grass availability is not an issue the most economic system involves achieving as much gain as possible from top quality grazed grass followed by a period of meal supplementation either indoors or at grass to finish lambs. The aim should be to regularly offer lambs fresh grass going in to covers of 1500 to 2000 kg dry matter per ha (grass height 8 – 10cm). Several studies have shown a positive impact on performance from moving on lambs when grass height reaches 6cm thus not forcing lambs to fully graze out swards. The use of temporary fencing optimises utilisation and allows fresh grass to be offered to lambs every 3 to 4 days. It is also important that any flock health issues such as parasite burden, lameness etc are properly addressed and are not negatively impacting lamb performance at grass.

Table 1: Typical performance of lowland terminal sired lambs on good quality pasture

Time periodADG (g/day)Kg gain per week
Aug/Sept 160 1.1
Oct/Nov 115 0.8

As outlined in Table 1 with excellent management there is potential for lambs to gain 1kg per week live weight during this period on a grass only diet. For example light lambs weighing 25 to 30 kg in August should be approaching 40kg after 12 to 14 weeks of good grass and ready to start the finishing period.

Estimated slaughter date

The aim is to reach the maximum carcass weight that meat processors are paying on at the time of slaughter. On the other hand regular drafting as lambs come fit is essential to ensure the target carcass weight is not being exceeded. This is particularly important where high levels of concentrates are being fed in the finishing period. In terms of adding value through a carcass price rise late February to April has been a good time to slaughter hoggets in recent years. For lighter stores this is a good period to aim for in terms of finishing hoggets before spring lamb comes on the market. Some producer groups have arrangements with factories to finish smaller framed hill breeds at lighter carcass weights. A store lamb finishing enterprise properly planned and well managed with attention to detail has the potential to leave a good margin as well as providing an injection of cash flow in the early part of the year.

An information booklet on Store Lamb Finishing is available here.

If you liked this article you might also like to read Purchasing rams or How to check the ewe is fit for breeding.

The Teagasc Sheep Specialists issue an article on a topic of interest to sheep farmers every second Tuesday here on Teagasc Daily.  Find more on Teagasc Sheep here. For any further information or assistance contact your local Teagasc Office here: Advisory Regions