Friday, December 6, 2019

Internet lamb sales help increase sheep flock

February 6, 2019 by  
Filed under Profiles

A deal with an online meat retailer has helped persuade a Lincolnshire farmer to increase his sheep numbers and change his breeding policy. Allan Stennett reports.

Livestock manager Daniel Rowbottom plans to increase his flock of 550 MV Accredited Lleyn ewes by 20% in the coming year at TP Radford’s Heydour Estates, at Kelby, near Grantham.

He has also switched from Charollais rams on the commercial part of his flock to using Suffolks to meet the requirements of his new buyer – an online meat retailer. If things go well, the flock could be expanded still further.

“We keep 250 of the ewes pure for pedigree breeding, but the rest are put to a Suffolk ram to produce cross-bred lambs for a meat retailing business online, finishing them all off grass and forage crops throughout the year.”

“We changed ram breeds because that was what the buyer wanted – it was a purely commercial decision,” says Mr Rowbottom.

Rams are selected to keep lambing difficulties to a minimum, with slender-headed, smaller-boned examples used on the shearlings. Mr Rowbottom admits that the Lleyn is not a breed usually associated with eastern England, but they have significant advantages for his purposes.

Commercial advantage

“They are a good commercial ewe: milky mothers, prolific and require less forage, which is an advantage in this area, which has less rainfall.”

Some 200 pedigree ewe lambs – double the usual number – will be kept back this year to help build up the flock. The immediate aim is to go from 550 to between 600 and 650, but a decision on further increases will have to wait while negotiations take place with the estate on land availability.

The sheep, and a small herd – or fold – of Highland cattle, use 300 acres of in-hand grassland on the 1200 acre estate as well as stubble turnips grown as part of the rotation on the contracted out 900 arable acres.

Sheep stay outside throughout the year, apart from at lambing. The pedigree Lleyns start about the 20 February, with the commercial cross lambs beginning to be born a couple of weeks later.

Sales to the pedigree market through the Lleyn Sheep Society sale at Ross on Wye will reduce this year because of holding back more females for breeding, although Mr Rowbottom hopes to have some suitable tups to offer there.

Local abattoir

Others will be sold through local markets at Newark and Melton Mowbray. Slaughtering takes place locally at an abattoir in Boston, so overall transport costs should come down.

Daniel says he is not worried about the prospect of a reduction in the lamb market if a Brexit deal closes off or restricts European markets.

“The nice thing about our situation is that we are producing these sheep to the specific requirements of our buyer, and we hope we are building up a relationship that will secure our future.”

The Highland cattle enterprise is based around 14 pedigree cows, with a total herd size, including followers, of just over 40 head. The herd was established before Mr Rowbottom arrived at the farm, but its presence suits him very well. He has had a life-long interest in the breed, based on his grandfather having some in Yorkshire, and Mr Rowbottom owns a number of his own.

The principal market is pedigree breeding stock, and Mr Rowbottom is particularly proud of winning the 2017 male championship at the Highland Cattle Society Oban Sales, the premier outlet for the breed.

Show winners

The two-year old bull concerned, Cameron Dubh of Kelby, then sold for 6,500gns. The following year, yearling heifers took first, second and third prizes in their respective classes. He will be
back again very shortly with another bull and a heifer, hoping for similar results.

Mr Rowbottom was so impressed by the performance of Cameron the bull that he named his son Cameron in its honour.

Internet sales, a key to the sheep business also played a part in the sale of another Highland bull, Legend of Kelby, for “a very good four-figure sum” to a buyer Germany, where the breed is very popular.

“I had intended to keep him and use him for breeding, but I put a picture of him onto Facebook, and was contacted by a German who was willing to pay a premium for him, so I let him go there.”

A useful secondary market for the cattle has been local wildlife trusts, looking for suitable animals to graze conservation sites. Another possibility being explored is that the sheep buyer may consider offering Highland beef to his existing retail customers, following a promotion of the idea.

The cattle have Elite Health Status, regularly tested for major diseases, and growth rates are being recorded. Calves are weighed at birth and weaning at a minimum, and cows at weaning to check condition.

Learning curve

He recorded that last summer’s hot weather resulted in a weight reduction of 10-15 Kg in the case of the cows at weaning and about 5kg for the calves, but the loss was reclaimed shortly afterwards.

Forage for this year still looks ‘a bit touch and go’, but Mr Rowbottom thinks they will have sufficient providing they don’t get another really hard spell.

The cattle are fed silage outdoors through the winter, but the sheep mainly get it when they come in two or three weeks before lambing, although some is put out on the turnip fields to avoid a dramatic change of diet as they come in.

Mr Rowbottom is a firm believer in the publicity benefits of showing livestock at local and regional shows as well as national breed events. A Lleyn tup, Kelby Goliath took the breed championship at the Lincolnshire show with a Kelby ewe as reserve.

“You’ve got to be seen – if nobody sees you, nobody knows about you.”

A new worker, Darren Sumner, has been recruited to help with the increasing numbers of stock.

Mr Rowbottom feels that the changes and expansion were presenting new challenges, but was confident they could be overcome. “It’s all a bit of a learning curve – we’ve learned a lot, and I’m sure we will learn more as we go along.”

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