Co-operation is the only way to tackle lamb crisis

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Sheep farmers must co-operate more effectively to make profits, the chairman of one of Scotland’s biggest lamb marketing co-operatives said this week.

Ian Watson of 1,100-member Farm Stock (Scotland) said that Scotland’s sheep numbers are at a low level and likely to remain static. More worryingly, “British shoppers see lamb as expensive” and it gets less supermarket shelf space than five years ago. Production problems had been exacerbated by this year’s wet weather and poor grazing quality, he said.

That had slowed lamb growth and brought a late autumn glut of poor quality, wet and dirty lambs, many with health problems such as liver fluke – a parasitic infection that thrives in wet conditions. Average lamb weights are down 1.7 kilos and deadweight price down 60p per kilo. The lamb export trade, he told members of Kelso agricultural discussion society, had slowed because of the euro’s problems and concerns about whether exporting companies would be paid, and the value of sheepskins had slumped from about £9 each last year to £3.50.

The net result has been a slump of about £20 per lamb year on year, not forgetting, he added, the problems of slaughterers and processors trying to make a profit margin on lower quality lambs and irregular supplies.

As chairman of the expanding business of Farm Stock (Scotland) – a Borders-based umbrella organisation for six formerly separate lamb groups, which three years ago marketed 91,000 lambs and last year marketed 125,000 – Watson said lessons should be learned.

He said: “There is scope for much better production planning by our members to match seasonal supply and demand.”

A planned, co-ordinated, strategy offering regular supplies of the required quality would give the co-operative more clout with abattoirs and their customers, the main supermarkets.

Watson said: “The more lambs we can handle, the more help we can also offer consignors with feedback on quality and management practices.”

He believed that the still-controversial individual ear-tag electronic identification of sheep (EID) – compulsory under European Union rules, resented by sheep farmers as expensive and unnecessary – should be treated as a useful management tool to accesses management and performance details.

Accepting that many farmers are still reluctant to co-operate, he said his background was with DLF Trifolium, a farmers’ co-op that began in Denmark more than a century ago: “It’s still owned by Danish farmers, 5,000 of them – it’s the largest grass seed seller in the world.”