American Lamb Board develops roadmap to identify challenges, solutions for the future of the industryWritten by Saige Albert
Park City, Utah – As the American sheep industry continues to face challenges related to a wide variety of issues, organizations are joining forces to tackle challenges.
“The American Lamb Board (ALB) is concerned about adding value to American lamb for all sectors who contribute to the American lamb checkoff,” said Dan Lippert, chairman of ALB.
The checkoff encompasses a wide variety of parties, from large and small producers across the country, seedstock producers feeders and processing and packing plants.
“With that in mind, ALB spent a lot to focus last year, and we have some exciting research projects to talk about,” Lippert continued.
Lippert and ALB Board Member Wes Patton addressed attendees of the 2014 West Central States Wool Growers Convention on Nov. 7.
Creating a plan
Patton noted, “We needed to try to put something in place to keep a crash like the one that happened a few years ago from happening again.”
He continued, “ALB and the National Sheep Industry Improvement Center (NSIIC) decided to fund an investigation of the industry that would point out the strengths and weaknesses of our industry and make suggestions on how those weaknesses could be fixed.”
A company from Boston took on the project, resulting in a number of recommendations that were compiled into the American Lamb Industry Roadmap.
“The purpose of the assignment was to identify and analyze the major challenges facing the industry and come up with the most effective ways to solve of those problems,” Patton explained.
“The group said that, in five years if we don’t change, we would probably have 80 percent of our product imported instead of just 50 percent,” Patton said. “Many of the commercial producers would not be in business anymore. Traditional marketing channels would dry up. In 10 years, they suggested that traditional sheep industry would have collapsed.”
Five teams were developed within the ALB to drive the future of the industry and implement changes suggested.
“The implementation team was the overall group,” said Patton. “The Production Characteristics Team, Demand Creation Team, Productivity Team and Industry and Communications Team were all formed.”
A report was released in January 2014, and in the nine months since, implementation has been occurring.
One objective given to the Implementation Team revolved around value-based pricing, and Patton noted, “They put together a team to look at that and said the industry had to change.”
“Producers deserve to be paid for the quality of product they are producing, not just the pounds they produce,” he continued. “The committee has suggested that, over a period of time, 80 percent of our product should be priced through a value-based pricing grid.”
To accomplish the goal, Patton noted that a team was appointed to work toward grid pricing.
“To have grid pricing, we rely heavily on yield grades,” Patton noted. “There is inconsistency in yield grades.”
The team has looked at electronic grading to improve consistency.
“The ALB has invested quite a bit in getting electronic grading, and they have taken a group to look at how to help value based pricing and consistency,” Patton said.
Electronic grading has been introduced or is planned to be introduced in the JBS Plant in Greeley, Colo. and in Superior’s Dixon Plant in California, as well as in other places.
“I think this is a tremendous move as far as making what we are doing more efficient, more accurate to satisfy the consumer’s needs,” Patton added.
The Product Characteristics Team has also made important progress.
“We have mild tasting, strong tasting and bad tasting lamb,” Patton explained. “We need to identify what those factors are that affect the taste of lamb.”
A group has been established to identify the factors impacting the taste of lamb, though Patton added that much of the literature available is dated.
“The genetics of the animals have changed and the genetics of the feed has changed,” he said. “What the consumer is looking for has also changed, and we need to get in tune with that.”
ALB has supported funds for additional research in determining what factors are most important in the flavor of lamb, particularly those factors that cause bad flavors.
To address demand, Patton noted that the Demand Creation Team has begun looking at both traditional markets and ethnic markets.
“Most of us represent the traditional marketing channels, and we have put in place a whole series of steps to look at marketing,” Patton noted. “We also sometimes overlook the Muslim and Hispanic customers. We have tremendous opportunity in these ethnic areas as far as lamb consumption is concerned.”
The Productivity and Improvement Team and Communications Team have also been working to accomplish their goals, as well.
“The Productivity Team is doing some really interesting things,” Patton explained. “They are encouraging producer productivity groups, and we are talking about re-launching the National Sheep Improvement Program.”
Patton also noted that the group is looking at the needs for sheep research and hiring coordinators to support producer profitability groups.
“The group that had the biggest job was the Communications Team,” he continued. “We tend to be a little bit secretive about the things we do, and this team has got to overcome that.”
The Communications Team also works to handle crises and get the word out about the sheep industry.
“As we make some changes, we will know we have succeeded if we have lots of customers, if consumption has grown and if each sector of the industry is experiencing productivity,” Patton said.
He also noted that the first nine months of implementation have been very successful, and he anticipates that their success will continue.
“Change is difficult, but this roadmap is the most promising way we have to make the U.S. sheep industry profitable and sustainable into the future,” Patton commented. “Remember, the challenge of change is to change – not to challenge change.”
Looking back to the 1940s, American Lamb Board Member Wes Patton noted that people in the U.S. were consuming 4.87 pounds of lamb per person each year. That dropped to 0.31 pounds per person in 2012.
“This is not a good trend,” he said. “The supply of lambs and consumption are going down, as well.”
Imports also provide an additional challenge for the industry, Patton commented, noting that imports provide 50 percent of consumption.
“This all starts with the consumer,” said American Lamb Board Member Wes Patton. “What does the consumer want from us?”
A study noted that consumers were looking for a high quality product with less fat. They also sought superb taste, tenderness, great nutrition and consistency.
“Consumers said they were getting all of these things from the proteins, but not from American lamb,” Patton noted. “They also said that local was important. In some cases, grass finished was important.”
Consumers also cited a whole list of preferences, including portion size and sustainability that the American Lamb Board is striving to meet.