Sheep producers in America are amongst some of the most resilient and resourceful folks within the agriculture community. Still, churning out a 5 – 9 living to feed the 9 – 5 crowd often doesn’t leave enough time for innovative thinking. Frankly, the U.S. sheep industry, in many ways, is in a rut.
Fortunately, a core group of thinkers, drawing from all walks of the industry -producers, consumers, and academics- have stepped up and taken the ram by his curls.
Premier One Supplies and the American Lamb Board realized the need to get these leaders together to discuss leading-edge ideas that will drive the sheep industry forward and thus held the first American Lamb Summit.
At the end of August for two days in Fort Collins, Colorado, around 200 attendees gathered and engaged in talks from experts in several fields and participated in discussions about the future of the industry. Bonding over a belief of lamb as a premier protein, attendees each went away inspired and with a renewed focus. Here are some of my thoughts overall:
First, American lamb is a great product!
Largely, American lamb in the supermarket or restaurant comes from larger lambs. Most often, American lamb is grain-finished, which gives it a milder flavor for lambs of this age. Does this sometimes lead to the drawback of having over finished lambs? Sure. Can we overcome this? Absolutely.
Overly finished lamb most often results in a great product to the consumer but there is a lot of fat that is trimmed off before the consumer purchases it. This adds considerable cost to the end consumer, whereas, imported lamb comes from smaller and leaner lambs. Through improved efficiency in harvest timing and refined management of animals prior to getting on the truck, we can chip away at this issue.
Second, the American lamb consumer is a gold mine.
Comparatively, Americans are a large population consisting of wealthy, health-conscious lovers of diverse foods. As it stands right now, most Americans hardly eat any lamb. Where some see a dead end road, many progressive industry leaders (and international decision makers) see a sleeping giant of a market.
Millennials will become the single largest generation in history and they are about to hit their prime spending years. And 20% of millennials have eaten lamb in the past three months. American lamb provides a high quality, locally-produced protein that fits their demand. In addition, it provides a unique eating experience that can be shared with their friends in person and via social media.
The non-traditional lamb consumer, primarily Muslim-Americans, continue to source American lamb in large volumes. This consumer is very familiar with sheep meat products and it is a staple of their diet. This consumer base is the major driver of the meat goat market.
Both consumers, traditional and non-traditional, are expected to grow in population and growth is expected in the financial resources they have to spend on lamb. Due to the aforementioned consumers, per capita lamb consumption in the US grew by roughly 30 % from 2011 to 2017, according to USDA-ERS. And there is opportunity for more growth.
Imported lamb has captured the majority of the growth in lamb consumption by the US lamb consumer over the last decade. Primarily, because imported lamb product tends to be more available at big box stores at a more inexpensive price point.
We also have competition from other high-end proteins and meatless proteins. Yes, we have a great consumer “in our backyard” but our competition is aggressively going after that consumer. We will have to fight for this consumer by providing a quality product at the right price. In addition, we have to retain consumer confidence that we properly care for our animals and the environment. This cannot be overstated.
Third, technological advancements in livestock production is mind-blowing.
It is my job to keep up with technology within the sheep and goat industry. It is very exciting that we have so much research-based information and technology. However, it is a daunting task to develop a strategy to implement this technology before it becomes obsolete.
I am very pleased to see that the US sheep industry is adopting the use of estimated breeding values (EBVs) via the National Sheep Improvement Program (NSIP). Now, we need to start devising a plan for the meat goat industry to integrate this technology as well. Not to mention, that advancements in molecular genetics is coming at us at warp speed. We must start to find a way to integrate genomic predictions into EBVs.
Vision grading integrated with RFID tags at the major lamb packing plants can now provide a highly accurate prediction of the carcass cutability of every lamb. Now producers can be paid for lambs based on the true cutability of the lamb. This data can then be traced back to production systems and genetics on the farm/ranch, allowing for rapid changes in production efficiency.
Rapid Evapoorative Ionixation Mass Spectrometry (REIMS) is being developed to predict flavor of lamb. This will allow for lamb to be classified or sorted into groups based on how the lamb will taste. It has been suggested to sort them into mild, medium, and bold flavor groups. However, this is yet to be determined.
These three things were just a few of the technologies discussed at the lamb summit; I can only image how many new technologies will be discussed at the 2021 American Lamb Summit.
Many of us whom were attracted to the sheep and goat industry like the simplicity of tending animals. In contrast, for sheep and goat operations to become sustainable into the future they are likely to become more complex than most other jobs. Although, we may want to continue to live a simple life, it does not look like this is going to be the case.
In the future, you will need to be experts at animal health care, livestock nutrition, land stewardship, marketing, business/finance, mechanics, etc. In my opinion, one of the most jarring quotes at the Lamb Summit was delivered by Dr. Henry Zerby, a meat scientist and sheep producer who works for a cooperative that supplies meat to the Wendy’s corporation:
“Too often we wonder what the costs of implementing technology will be. In reality, we should be asking… what are the costs if we don’t?”
These are exciting times! Stay tuned.
To provide feedback on this article or request topics for future articles, contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org or 325-657-7324. For general questions about sheep and goats, contact your local Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service county office. If they can’t answer your question, they have access to someone who can.