Sheep farmers identified a range of opportunities for action at the final meeting of the Borders Lamb Supply Chain Group held at Carfraemill last week.
The group, which is one of three funded by Quality Meat Scotland (QMS), Farm Stock Scotland Ltd and the Scottish Government, has met on seven occasions over the past 14 months to gain a better understanding of the issues faced at each stage of the lamb supply chain.
“The meetings have been well supported by farmers,” said Iain Riddell of SAC Consulting, part of SRUC (Scotland’s Rural College) who has facilitated the group.
“The project brought procurement and processing representatives and the retailers together with farmers in one place. This has not been done before and provided a unique experience for all those involved.
“The group’s collective view was that if productivity and profitability are to be improved at every link in the chain, more efforts are needed to build on the momentum created by bringing everyone together,” Mr Riddell added.
With the messages on meeting processor’s specification and presenting clean stock being reiterated through the meetings and abattoir visit, improvements had been seen and were crucial to maintaining good working relationships, said Vicky Stebbings of Farm Stock Ltd.
The farmer-owned livestock marketing co-operative handled 6000 more lambs in 2014 and developed two new buyer relationships to handle the increase in turnover. Ms Stebbings shared a graph, which illustrated supply against the volatile prices for lamb. From August to October, a high volume of lamb comes forward from farms and this swell in numbers sees prices drop to their lowest point of the year. “It’s seasonal and traditional but could be avoided if some farmers were to be flexible with their finishing,” she said.
One Farm Stock producer sold his entire lamb crop by early August at an average weight of 17.8 kg and achieved £9.25 per head above the average Farm Stock price. Similarly, lambs finished later on forage crops are in demand and achieving a higher price per kg - a more regular supply would increase rewards for everyone.
The group of 35 farmers also considered whether selling on contract might be one way of removing some of the volatility in prices.
Bill MacKinnon from Scotbeef, which operates three Scottish abattoirs and two processing centres, has been involved with the group since it was established and hosted the abattoir visit. Mr MacKinnon agreed contracts could be a solution. However, he pointed out that 60% of lambs slaughtered annually at Scotbeef are exported. These are delivered mainly as a whole carcass throughout Europe and beyond - so it’s not just the UK supermarkets that are buying lamb.
The project had also highlighted the decline in domestic lamb consumption and how this impacts on producer price and squeezes processor margins.
Another speaker at the meeting was Ruth Wilson who farms at Clackmae, near Earlston. She sells 2000 lambs of her total lamb crop deadweight and over 90% meet the target specification. Of these she said she was very proud of 1500, 400 she classes as okay and 100 are described as “others”.
As a result of her involvement in the Group she has been inspired to make as many tweaks as she can to fine tune finishing and selection and improve performance further. With the opening up of communications she feels she will now look for new markets for the poorer lambs. She also reminded the group that the abattoirs are their customers so farmers should be producing to their specification. This would, she said, increase consumer satisfaction and help the bottom line.
George Milne, Development Officer with NSA, commended the work of the initiative in getting the whole supply chain talking.
“Scotch Lamb is a first class product backed up by full traceability and assurance standards,” he said. “QMS carries out targeted marketing and campaigns such as Wham Bam Lamb raised consumption by 11% last autumn – think of the impact if QMS received an increased budget,” Mr Milne said.
Highlighting the consumer as the most important person in the lamb supply chain, Andrew Grant of Riddell Farms and Vice Chairman of Farm Stock, underlined the urgent need to tackle the continuing long term reduction in lamb consumption. The need to increase the marketing budget for Scotch Lamb must be a priority area for discussion, he said, adding that it is important that momentum is maintained.
The next step will be for Farm Stock to meet with QMS representatives and others to discuss the significant issues arising from the lamb supply chain project with the aim of producing a targeted action plan to address these issues going forward.