PRIME lamb prices continued to climb at Katanning last week with Boyup Brook farmer Mal Gibbs topping the yarding and setting an $85.50 record price for a pen of 33 White Suffolk Merino cross lambs.
The pen created a wave of excitement when Wesfarmers Dalgety auctioneer Wayne Hams knocked them down to WAMMCO International.
A quick calculation by livestock market reporter Graeme Curry estimated they would average 25 kilograms carcase weight with $6 skins or around $3.20/kg dressed weight.
The price puts pressure on processors to match the unprecedented sale yard prices with one stock agent, who declined to be named, saying lamb prices would hit $100 a head before long.
The top line of lambs was part of a 100-head consignment that Mal sent to Katanning and a second draft of 58 fetched $83.50.
Among Mal's first comments after hearing the news was "it's about time farmers had a win. If we can work as a team everyone's better off."
He was referring to a lack of stability in wool, prime lamb and cropping and the extent farmers were rapidly switching between enterprises to maximise returns saying it cost more than $22 to produce a lamb and "no-one can work in an environment like that".
The lambs were the first he has turned off from the 2000 drop.
He usually sells about half in the spring but because the season was bad and lambs didn't achieve a targeted 45kg minimum liveweight for turn-off he kept them.
He said he had an inkling that lambs would be scarce because there were a lot of people getting $35 plus for stores early in the season and he made a decision to lot feed the entire 1150-head drop.
Mal said he had lot fed smaller numbers of lambs in previous years using his own grain-based ration but it had never really been successful. By the time the price was right it was usually June or July and then it was too cold for the sheep.
This time he used a pelletised ration and plans to deliver a draft every couple of weeks.
The $85.50 price for Mal Gibbs' lambs is well above the $73.80 record price (then) in saleyards for crossbred lambs set at Midland in 1995 and the other prices set at Katanning and Midland in recent weeks
The $85.50 figure also betters the $82.12 for a single crossbred lamb, paid by WAMMCO soon after they entered the WA marketplace.
The gold-plated $85.50 lambs were in a consignment of 100 which averaged an excellent $82.22.
"It's a record price I believe and sold through Wesfarmers Landmark," the company's Katanning auctioneer Wayne Hams said.
Not only that, in the same yarding, a line of 93 wethers from AJ Lawrence, Esperance, averaged $60.20.
"They were big heavyweight wethers that would have been 75kg live, with an inch and a bit of skin. They would have dressed out at 32 to 33kg and were bought by butchers," Wayne Hams said.
In the Elders Katanning yarding, top price last week was $79.60 for the tops s 134 crossbred lambs, account Maikurra Pastoral, Esperance, with RJ & KM Bessell-Browne, Woodanilling, not far behind at $79.20 for the tops of 84 Suffolk-cross lambs.
"Two weeks back we were selling lamb for $2.60/kg on-farm, now it's $3. We also sold 600 lambs for $47/head on-farm. There are always people who want to know what they'll get and don't want to take what they see could be a risk by going to auction," Elders auctioneer Roger Fris said.
"I'd like to see crossbred lambs make $100 but what farmers want really is a good consistent price all the time."
Such is the demand for lamb in WA that a major supermarket has trucked in two semi-loads of lamb - about 2500-head - from the eastern states (where, for a change, lambs are cheaper than the WA product).
Supermarket lamb (Australia-wide) was fetching around $2.15/kg last week, while lamb prices in WA were as high as $3.40/kg. More shipments from the eastern states to WA are expected.
Also, large amounts of boxed lamb is being trucked over from the eastern seaboard.
The high prices are wonderful news for farmers but a note of caution is being sounded in the industry.
It is said that if the saleyard price continues to rise, increased retail prices could mean buyer resistance, with a resultant turn away from lamb - and beef, for that matter.
Cattle producers are also enjoying tremendous saleyard prices and the possibility of these prices being passed on to the consumer could mean a red meat black ban and a switch to pork and chicken.
With regard to abattoirs, it will be business as usual at Linley Valley because its clientele base requires year round supplies, but Katanning will downsize its operation for the time being, general manager Des Griffiths said.
As is the normal practice, Fletcher International will shut down for maintenance and staff holidays and was looking at an August start, company principal Roger Fletcher said.