Striving for perfection, Sheep-Industry continues to fine-tune lamb quality
Of all the red meat products available in the retail market, our domestic sheep industry produces some of the highest quality. According to Colorado State University Sheep Extension Specialist Steve LeValley, 90 percent of the lamb produced in the U.S. grades Choice or better, compared to just 60 percent of beef.
To be fair, he says, the sheep industry in the U.S. has declined to really small numbers – so small that 60 percent of the lamb sold on the retail market in the U.S. is imported, mostly from New Zealand or Australia.
“We just don’t have enough producers left to supply the needs of this country,” LeValley explains.
“We don’t export any domestic lamb product, other than something like kidneys, because of scrapie,” he continues. “But we are optimistic that one day, we will be able to say scrapie is eradicated in the United States.”
LeValley says the sheep industry hopes to be able to genetically identify sheep that may carry the scrapie genes to help with this eradication process.
Despite producing a high-quality product, lamb is not very competitive with other red meats in the retail case, mostly because of its high retail cost. Some consumers find it so cost prohibitive that retail grocers may not offer lamb for sale in smaller cities and rural areas.
“Pork can dress about 75 percent, but lamb is only about 50 percent, which is a 25 percent difference in economic yield,” LeValley states.
Despite that, lamb has the least amount of quality defects of any of the red meats.
“In most cases, lamb is almost a natural product. USDA hasn’t been able to find any chemical residue. Most lambs come from the range almost natural,” he says.
At the processing plant, LeValley says a camera takes pictures of the side profile and the back profile of each lamb carcass. From those two photos, ribeye area, fat thickness and the weight of the carcass can be calculated almost instantly.
By the end of the day, the packer knows how many pounds of loins, legs, shanks and ribs that have been harvested and can place a value on that, he explains.
Consumer preferences for lamb are also starting to change, LeValley continues.
With more ethnic groups calling the U.S. their home, the demand for lamb is increasing.
LeValley also sees a younger generation of people in the U.S. who enjoy cooking.
“There are still some generational issues, but I think now we are facing a huge educational gap,” he says. People are intimidated by lamb. A lot of people will try it someplace and love it, but they can’t figure out how to cook it at home.”
“We may need to start holding some lamb cooking schools. Lamb is actually very easy to prepare. It is simple to grill, or it can be cooked just like a pork chop,” he explains.
In fact, most consumers prefer to see lamb prepared in traditional ways.
“The taste and quality is there. We are just working now to improve consistency in terms of size,” he says.
One of the biggest problems with distribution is sheep are seasonal breeders, which causes most of the lambs to be ready for market at the same time.
“Because of this, we see lots of different systems for lamb feeding,” LeValley says.
In Idaho, they graze fields of radishes planted after the wheat is harvested, while in other areas, they graze on beet tops with a protein feeder for supplement. Sometimes, they just graze longer.
“It is important to find ways to delay the growth pattern because we need to be able to control how fat they are when they come to market. We need to hold off finishing that lamb until the right time of year when there is more demand,” he states.
Not all lambs can be harvested straight off the range, so many lambs have to be housed in a feedlot until distribution equals out, the Extension Sheep Specialist continues. Sometimes, these lambs will get too much finish, either because of the lack of demand or low price. So, the feeder holds onto them longer.
Once they are processed, the packer will realize less value because most of this excess fat will have to be trimmed.
LeValley says the sheep industry is diligent in working toward producing an even better quality product. Producers and consumers can access sheep handling videos, the sheep quality assurance program and even lamb recipes through YouTube or on the internet.
Gayle Smith is a correspondent for the Wyoming Livestock Roundup. Send comments on this article to firstname.lastname@example.org.