20 November 1998


FLOCKMASTERS have seen finished lamb returns tumble since midsummer with store and cull ewe prices dropping through a hole in the floor.

The big question is the speed and extent to which prices will rally before the 1999 lamb crop is ready for market.

David Croston, head of sheep meat strategy at the Meat and Livestock Commission, recognises the urgent need for higher prices in the short and longer term.

He says: "Four important factors should help the recovery. The first is lifting the UKs self-imposed restriction on whole ewe carcass sales to France, our most important export market. The result is that cull ewe prices are now starting to edge up slowly but the final benefits will depend on the extent to which exporters manage to regain lost business.

"Aids to Private Storage should also help price recovery. This was argued for strongly by the farming unions and pulled off by MAFF, and took 2400t of carcass meat off the market from Oct 19 to Nov 20. The MLC has been encouraging Ministry of Defence suppliers to take up this lamb to ensure it does not depress a still fragile market on its release," he says.

A concentrated MLC promotion campaign designed to boost lamb sales over the pre and post-Christmas period, and help move the higher than normal number of lambs still on farms should benefit producers, says Mr Croston. "We are working closely with major retailers and the aim is to shift as much volume as possible to clear the system and help to lift market prices."

He stresses that low prices at the moment are not so much a surplus lamb concern as a total meat problem, aggravated by economic collapse in both Asia and Russia.

"These outlets traditionally took a lot of EU beef and pigmeat which now seeks outlets in competition with lamb in over-supplied EU markets."

Home market stimulus will concentrate on in-store activities coupled with on-pack promotion and the British logo displayed boldly.

The fourth initiative to lift lamb sales is based on an MLC campaign to encourage the wider uptake of principles enshrined in its blueprint for lean and tender lamb.

These procedures, designed specifically to improve the eating quality of older lambs, include hip (aitch bone) hanging after slaughter, the alternative of high voltage electrical stimulation of carcasses within 30 minutes of slaughter, followed by minimal maturation times and the correct level of chill temperatures in store.

Electrical stimulation

Mr Croston says: "High voltage electrical stimulation in particular is highly beneficial with an increasing number of processors now using the equipment and more supermarket meat buyers specifying the treatment. Equipment costs are modest and the process lends itself to high plant throughput.

"We are also researching low voltage electrical stimulation which is also effective, is even cheaper to install and operate and should appeal to smaller slaughterer-processors.

"There is no doubt that when our blueprint recommendations are followed closely older winter lambs can have the succulence, tenderness and the same eating quality as summer lambs finished off the grass. Such techniques make the somewhat derogatory term of hogget redundant."

Mr Croston accepts that producers are still obliged to weather the storm of current low prices but he argues that the home sheep industry is essentially stable and robust enough to rally.

He says: "The EU is still only 82% self-sufficient in sheep meat and lamb is, without doubt, the meat with most flavour. To help producers over the winter we are also producing an advisory leaflet in time for Smithfield, including topical tips for business survival. They include tips on taxation, social support for those in need and technical information on feeding ewes more cheaply over winter without impairing future flock performance."

Mr Croston says contributory factors which have helped to depress sheep prices in recent months include a 6% increase in the lamb crop, with many still on farms and unfinished. This was aggravated by a 1.5-2% increase in ewe retention. In 1997 the UK flock was already at its highest level for 12 years with 20.5m breeding ewes.

The straw which broke the camels back was the overnight loss of the skin trade to Russia with prices slumping from £8-£9 down to £1 when buyers could be found. That trade to all intents and purposes is dead.

The strong sterling contributed to a 7% drop in exports but that trade still takes over 30% of the total UK lamb crop and is a major contributor to price stability in the home market. Recent falls in the value of the sterling are welcome in this context.

Mr Croston says: "It is my firm belief that the UK sheep industry is a well-found ship. Our genetic input is producing leaner lambs with a higher meat content and killing out percentage, and in flocks improved genetics are transmitted free to succeeding generations.

"The MLC continues to promote the home market and our recent Quick Lamb campaign theme, including novel cuts which can be prepared quickly and were designed to appeal to younger consumers, has been received enthusiastically by the trade," adds Mr Croston.

Low prices at the moment are not so much a surplus lamb concern as a total meat problem and have been aggravated by economic collapse in Aisa and Russia, says David Croston, head of sheepmeat strategy at the Meat and Livestock Commission.

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