13 October 2000

Lamb market signals plea

By James Garner

RETAILERS and meat processors must give the sheep industry clear signals as to what their customers want from lamb products.

SAC sheep geneticist Ron Lewis says retailers and processors could be missing out on a cost saving opportunity by not making more use of large lean lambs.

Thanks to genetic progress, slaughter weights could be lifted and retail specifications could change for prime lambs from flocks dedicated to genetic improvement and reducing fatness.

"There is an opportunity to take lambs from these flocks to heavier weights." About 16% of terminal sires used in the country now come from performance recorded flocks.

Dr Lewis believes this would allow a two tier market to develop, with heavier lambs being sold for processing and retailing as long as there was no compromise in eating quality. This could cut processing costs by increasing meat yields and mean some farmers receive more money for heavier lambs.

The other tier could remain at todays standard retail spec of 16kg-21kg for weight, 2 and 3L for leanness, and E,U and R for conformation. But having this spec as the only marketing guide is now outdated, he says.

Two decades of genetic selection means that lambs can now be marketed at heavier weights, he adds. "Some sheep now reach 40kg two weeks earlier and they reach this without becoming overly fat."

Not enough is being made of genetic improvement, according to Dr Lewis, who says growing bigger lambs could have benefits for the catering and processing food sector.

At least one retailer has looked in to heavier carcasses, but one supermarket insider says carcasses would have to weigh 27kg for there to be benefits, and there are caveats.

"I would be worried whether lamb grown to this weight would eat the same, particularly as we have made improvements in eating quality."

And there would also be concerns for producers. "Farmers would want lambs to reach this weight in similar time without them becoming too rammy."

ASDA lamb buyer David Walker says the idea is fine where large amounts of boneless cuts are sold, and that moving heavier lambs into this market would result in better value.

"It also depends on whether abattoirs could handle heavier carcass weights," says Mr Walker. However, Chittys livestock manager Mark Hinton believes it would be unlikely to cause too many concerns.

But there is still a long way to go with average prime lambs before heavier weights can be reached, says MLCs technical services Mike Owen.

"There is a long way to go to lift average lambs from 18.5kg to 21.5kg within the current framework. If we were averaging 21.5kg then it would be worth considering, but there are still improvements to be made."

While it may be worth sub-dividing the current prime market, there have been moves to bring smaller hill lambs in to the retail market in recent years, such as Safeways Welsh Mountain range.

"We have looked to improve sales of lambs less than the retail spec, but above 11.5kg carcass weight," says HM Bennetts lamb buyer Juliet Davies.

But before too much market segregation begins, Dr Lewis cautions that the battle against fat 40kg lambs is not yet won. It remains the industrys biggest problem and there is still work to do on this.

Reducing fat and increasing market weight may respond to customer needs, but there will also be a need to react to public perception, he says, adding that lambs natural image stands it in good stead with the customer.

"Customers will not only be making decisions on cost, but also on quality, and are increasingly interested in the way an animal was produced." He hopes this will be accompanied by a willingness to pay more.

PRIME LAMB WEIGHTS.

&#8226 Heavier lambs from improved rams.

&#8226 Mustnt compromise eating quality.

&#8226 Processing efficiency.

PRIMELAMBWEIGHTS

&#8226 Heavier lambs from improved rams.

&#8226 Mustnt compromise eating quality.

&#8226 Processing efficiency.