As 2021 ends it will, for many, be a time of introspection; I am sure that many sheep producers will be looking back over the past 12 months with a tinge of satisfaction, perhaps even smugness. In December 2020 everything was still very much in the air, our imminent departure from the EU, compounded by Covid-19 regulations, providing a “cliffhanger” end to the year, with uncertainty casting a bit of a cloud over New Year celebrations. Things could have gone either way for the sheep sector; it could easily have been an absolute disaster, but with tight supplies both internally and globally and relatively strong domestic demand, markets took off in spite of a significant fall in the amount of lamb crossing the Channel to our erstwhile European partners. Fortunately the divorce was not as acrimonious as it might have been, although the full settlement has not yet been finalised.
Weather wise, this year rather broke the trend of summer droughts, at least in the South East. A period of five weeks with just a couple of millimetres of rain in late March and April caused a bit of consternation but proved to be no more than a brief hiatus, with the rains reappearing as we moved into May. Overall as a grass growing season, 2021 excelled itself; it really is a long time since I can recall having so much summer grass, I won’t say too much, but certainly on occasions a bit of an embarrassment.
The sheep have not gone short of grazing this year. I know that at times I’ve done everything that we are constantly told not to do: not keeping on top of grass growth, turning ewes and lambs into paddocks where the grass is far too long, grazing grass that is too mature, the list goes on, but the outcome does lead me to question some of the current recommendations.
Both ewes and lambs have done remarkably well. The ewes have gone to the tup in good condition, some even pushing the boundaries a little at the upper end of optimum BCS, and the lambs are growing on well and look good. I must admit that with plenty of grass available, I have not pushed them to clear up but have moved them around paddocks fairly readily, quite happy for them to eat the bottom out and then tidy up behind with the topper. It’s an approach that has seemed to work. The strategic use of molasses blocks has, I suspect, helped this process or at least helped rumen function. Providing a little extra fuel for micro flora and fauna that make up the rumen micro-biome enables them to work more effectively and make much better and more efficient use of available grass and forages, much of which had unquestionably passed its optimum feed value. I have always been an advocate of looking after the inner animal; feed the rumen and let the rumen feed the sheep.
The residues left after grazing and topping off have also provided an unintentional but welcome bonus in helping to put what I guess will be a significant quantity of organic matter into the soil over the summer period. Any additional organic matter should leave the soil in better condition and provide added resilience to drought in subsequent years.
The rather wet and warm summer has not been without its down sides; plenty of hay has been made, but hay-making has been snatchy, to say the least, and although there may be abundant quantity, the wet weather and rather mature grass has resulted in quite a substantial knock to quality. I’m sure that there will be plenty of hay available this coming winter, but good hay will be more difficult to find.
The long grass and warm, wet weather has also generated a few problems for sheep, most notably a significant increase in the incidence of foot problems. Fortunately this has largely been due to scald which, if spotted and treated in a timely manner, is relatively easy to deal with; the footbath has certainly had more than its usual level of use over this summer.
The real bonus to most sheep producers this year has, however, been prices, which in general have been good across the board (except wool, but this is steadily, if slowly, improving); lamb prices have been buoyant throughout the season, a few ups and downs but it will always be thus. Trade in breeding ewes has been very good, particularly for anything with a bit of quality, and the ram trade has been not good but OK – it could have been much worse.
Rams have sold reasonably well and, again, for anything with a bit of quality, at a sensible, if not a good, price. It is a strange phenomenon that, frequently, if there is a strong trade in breeding females then the ram trade is proportionally not quite so good. As a result ram sellers have generally not seen the premium prices that have been made at some of the female sales. It seems counter-intuitive to me that if one has paid good money for some good ewe tegs one should then try to save a bit by buying a cheaper ram. Good ewes merit good rams; cheap rams will not generally produce the quality of lambs that they deserve. We had a very slow start to our ram sales but by the end of the season could have sold rather more than we had available and all at sensible prices.
The store lamb trade has also been surprisingly good; on occasions strong stores have even made more than finished lambs, possibly as a result of some buyers getting a little carried away with the moment, but very good for breeders. Some store lamb buyers may feel that they have paid too much for lambs, but they did have a very good start to the year, selling finished lambs into a very buoyant finished lamb market this spring, often at a premium price – lambs they probably purchased, due to Brexit uncertainty, at quite a favourable price last autumn. Latest AHDB forecasts of a 2% drop in lambs marketed at the tail end of 2021 and census figures showing an almost 3% decline in total sheep numbers would seem to justify the current market confidence in a good trade next spring.
We mustn’t forget those sheep keepers who last autumn purchased ewe lambs to run on. The lively trade in breeding females, has in general, served them very well, some of the stronger ewe tegs this year making more than twice, some three times, what was paid for them as ewe lambs in 2020, leaving some very generous margins; this in spite of 1.5% fall in the national breeding flock.
We certainly have some cause for modest celebrations this year, if only out of relief, particularly when one considers that with both Brexit and Covid-19 restrictions, things could so easily have gone disastrously wrong for agriculture; the sheep sector in particular. It is a shame that recent supply chain problems and the prospect of some significant cost increases heading our way have put a bit of a dampener on the celebrations. Fortunately we in the sheep sector are neither as threatened nor as vulnerable as some of our fellow quality British meat producers such as those in the pig sector.
I’m sure that we all empathise with the pain currently being felt by pig producers, many of whom find themselves in a dreadful situation, some facing ruin and loss of businesses that may have been built up over generations; a situation that has been generated by a range of events and circumstances completely beyond their individual control.
Some of the supply chain issues impacting on the pig sector, particularly abattoir capacity, veterinary inspections and insufficient processing capability, are also a potentially serious threat to the sheep sector. We are to some extent fortunate in as much as sheep production is nowhere near as intensive as pig production; efficiency and intensity are not always the gods that some make them out to be. The nature of the modern pig sector is such that if things do start to go wrong they have an almost immediate and cascading impact, capable of generating significant disruption through the industry.
The nature of the sheep sector does allow for greater flexibility; rather more relaxed specifications, wider marketing opportunities and less severe penalties for being out of spec confer some significant advantages. But the relative comfort that we find ourselves in compared with the pig sector should not be an excuse for complacency; we still need to be aware of potential threats and be proactive in addressing them.
The wide range of sheep breeds and crosses that we have at our disposal gives rise to an equally wide array of systems, which are, at times, something of a disadvantage, a hindrance to efficiency we are repeatedly told, but they do provide a useful degree of flexibility. In general we have not gone down the same “one size fits all” route of production systems that is now proving to be part of the undoing of the pig sector.
Recent trade deals agreed with both Australia and now New Zealand, plus the way in which the pig sector has been treated and regarded by the Government, should ring alarm bells; the current administration has ably demonstrated both its lack of understanding of the issues and unwillingness to commit to meaningful support for any part of the agricultural industry that happens to find itself in trouble due to no fault of its own. As an industry, the sheep sector does in general tend to be very independent and self reliant; out of necessity we are good at identifying problems and adopting suitable solutions, an attribute that will serve us well as we move into 2022.