Here are some notes I had on a marketing presentation I heard at the KHSI Expo in Oregon. Dr. Charles Parker has a long background in livestock research, and he spoke on the future of the lamb industry in this country, and how we should be thinking about marketing our product.
So, first off, the future generally looks very bleak! The U.S. lamb industry is actually on an eighty-year severe decline!
There are many factors involved, but as we all know, Americans don’t eat a lot of lamb in general. Secondly, the wool industry here is not thriving. Nearly 90% of wool flocks are now losing money on the wool-the cost of shearing is greater than the value of the wool. So, having wool on sheep is starting to become a liability, not an asset. And, thus it’s not surprising to know that although the overall sheep industry is hemorrhaging, the hair sheep segment is the only portion that is on the rise. Many large-scale lamb producers are making the move to “breed the wool off” their sheep, to switch solely to meat lamb production.
Now, I should mention here (this wasn’t focused on in the talk) that I think the specialty wool market is still strong. Small producers who market to handspinners can do very well, from what I’ve gathered from producers I’ve spoken to who keep breeds like Wensleydales and other fine wool producers. But, many of those specialty wool breeds haven’t necessarily been developed for high production, low-input systems; so the two markets don’t intersect. You can’t grow thousands of jacketed Wensleys on the open range with no care and mediocre forage, and render a 200% meat crop too! And, it’s probably reasonable to project that if someone figured out how to do that, and drastically increased supply of fancy wool, the high price would decline.
The U.S. is now importing 50% of the lamb consumed in this country. One third of our population is now “ethnic”, meaning people who are one or two generations away from some other nationality than generic, non-lamb-eating American. 800,000 lambs went to the ethic market last year. This ethnic market has ten different holidays over nine months, for all of which lamb is a traditional dish. So, duh, this is where we should be marketing our lamb. Ethnic markets often want their lamb different than the traditional U.S. packer would require- they like smaller lambs (35-105 lb range, live weight), and they don’t necessarily want “mild” lamb flavor or lean meat- sometimes they even dislike it that way!
There are 800,000 beef producers in the United States. 700,000 of then have fewer than thirty cows! What most of these folks don’t know, that we need to teach them, is that adding sheep production to their operations will improve their pasture forage quality, increase pounds of meat produced per acre, and enhance their bottom lines-all without changing their operation that much. So, this is another market we should be pursing aggressively.
Lamb skin is something else that we could do a better job of marketing. Dr. Parker was sporting a beautiful black lamb skin vest, fashioned in the Western style with stitching. He emphasized that fine leather products never go out of style.
The jury is still out on whether we can claim that Katahdin lamb (or hair sheep in general) tastes “better” than wool sheep breeds. Some studies indicate this is not the case. But, there is speculation that hydrogen sulfide in the tissue adversely affects lamb flavor, and it is related to wool production, so is minimal in hair sheep. So, it’s still possible that someday someone will definitively prove that hair sheep are tastier, and give a scientific explanation to back it up. We’ll see!