Superior quality and taste are no longer enough to satisfy the expectations of customers buying meat from a niche market.

A group of eight farmers who won a contract to supply Sainsbury’s with grass-fed lamb say niche suppliers must always strive to improve production methods.

Dolaucothi Lamb, produced on a National Trust estate in mid-Wales, is a flagship product for the supermarket chain.

To keep it as such, the farmers must constantly review controls on welfare, health and conservation, says group member Huw Davies.

“We have to be aware of our customers and their needs,” says Mr Davies, who produces 600 finished lambs a year at Llandre Farm, Pumpsaint.

“Quality in terms of taste and consistency of Welsh lamb is good, so we have to go the extra mile to make our product stand out.”

The right spec and taste are taken for granted, he says, but traceability and transparency are equally important.

“Our customers are concerned about the environment the lambs are reared in and whether as farmers we are striving to farm in a sustainable manner.

“They want reassurances on issues such as sheep dip disposal and waste management.

We have shown a willingness to be open on these matters.”

This year the group has introduced electronic tagging as a further measure to guarantee traceability.

The eight farmers had been selling their lamb through their local meat processor, the Oriel Jones and Son abattoir at Llanybydder, which is the main supplier of lamb to Sainsbury’s.

Three years ago, the group decided to approach Sainsbury’s as a means of moving out of the commodity market.

“We had the right product as far as quality and consistency was concerned and there was already a link between Sainsbury’s and the abattoir we were supplying.

The track record and relationship were already there,” says Mr Davies.

Sainsbury’s liked the idea and the farmers now supply the chain with 200-250 lambs a week from 1 September to the end of October.

Lamb is sold through 20 of its stores along the M4 corridor.

Individual annual farm output ranges from 200 to 800 lambs.

Cost sharing within the group is based on the number of lambs each farmer produces.

The flocks, mainly Beulah Speckled Faces and Mule breeds, lamb in March.

Lambs are weaned mid-summer and sold deadweight at 16-21kg at E, U or R grades.

The unique nature of this joint venture was recognised when the group was awarded the gold True Taste Award last year at the Millennium Centre in Cardiff, specifically for the good partnership between the farmers, processor, retailer and customers.

But, one limitation the group has is in terms of growth.

The farms are producing lamb at maximum output. Dolaucothi lamb is so popular with Sainsbury’s customers that the supermarket would like more.

Although expansion is restricted in terms of lambs, there are other areas the group can develop, maintains Mr Davies.

“We continually strive to improve the product, we have learned so much from this process that it has given us the confidence to do that,” he adds.