Smith looks at sheep opportunitiesWritten by Natasha Wheeler
Fort Collins, Colo. – Gary Smith consulted with experts in the livestock industry to determine the biggest opportunities for livestock and poultry over the next decade. Sheep industry experts identified supply issues as their biggest challenge.
“To help per-capita consumption, we have to have a greater supply,” stated Smith, a professor of animal science at Colorado State University, during the International Livestock Forum on Jan. 13.
Most sheep have a seasonal anestrous period, so they do not produce lambs year-round.
“If we can modify the seasonality in production, we could increase the reproductive rate,” he said.
He also suggested raising more hair sheep, or easy-care breeds.
“They actually shed their own wool and it can just be gathered up from the pastures,” he explained.
Smith noted that predation from dogs, wolves, coyotes and other local threats needs to be decreased.
“We need to decrease predation if we’re going to increase supply,” he said.
Mitigating the consequences of drought and preserving access to public lands for grazing were also concerns that Smith addressed in the sheep supply chain.
“The second greatest importance, in terms of the opportunities that the experts identified, has to do with increasing the transfer of information,” stated Smith.
Emphasizing diverse markets, developing traceability and building a value-based market system within the industry were some of his suggestions.
“The best way to make sure we identify and follow sheep, as well as increase the production from them, is by having traceability,” he said.
Smith also noted, “Producers don’t get more money for a better lamb than for a medium or not-very-good lamb, so they need a value-based marketing system,” stated Smith.
To do that, exceptional animals need to be chosen and desirable traits need to be identified throughout the system.
Improving perception of quality, or what consumers believe to be important, was the next challenge that Smith addressed, saying that the experts highlighted emphasizing flavor desirability profiles and promoting the pastoral image and environmental stewardship associated with the feeding and production of lamb.
“We need to be able to sell taste, because lamb is truly unique,” he said.
Smith explained that the younger generation does not know how to prepare lamb at home.
“I think we’ve priced ourselves into a situation where we can’t get young people to try it. If they would, they would find it has a very distinct, deep flavor,” he said.
He also noted that much of lamb’s appeal was lost in World War II, when mutton was sold to people labeled as lamb.
“Another thing that we can do, is try to make sure that people understand the pastoral image that is created by lamb, on a pasture, by the good shepherd,” Smith said.
Christianity and Judaism are based on lambs and sheep, including the image they create as part of a peaceful kind of life.
“We need to use that to merchandise this product,” he stated.
Smith also suggested looking into market-specific products.
“We can also take a great leap of faith and produce products for niche markets outside what we have traditionally called lamb,” he said.
These markets include grass-fed, antibiotic free, organic and non-hormonally treated animals.
“We also need to capitalize on domestic ethnic markets,” he explained.
Products should be directed to populations that have history and tradition in eating lamb.
Another opportunity addressed by the experts is improving the descriptors of quality.
“How do we describe and define quality in lamb?” Smith asked.
The sheep industry can change the quality grade and yield rates. They can moderate size and fatness of animals and make the product easier to describe in terms of quality, he said.
Lastly, Smith noted the opportunities of the export market. The U.S. is part of a global economy and there is a demand for sheep and lamb in other countries.
“We need to gain access to more international markets,” stated Smith.