As spring finally shifts into the warmth of early summer, many BBQs across North America are being pulled back into the sun and fired up after a long winter break. Unfortunately, many retailers and meat distributors have also started to feel the less-than-pleasant reverberations of the annual lamb shortage.
Every year at this time, lamb lovers search for their usual lamb favourites. Retailers scramble to fill lamb displays. Grills remain bare of the lamb classics. Somehow, each year feels worse than the last, and in many ways – it’s not too far from the truth.
Globally, lamb supply is shrinking among traditional lamb sources while demand is increasing. New Zealand, the world’s traditional lamb juggernaut, has seen their flock reduce from 46 million sheep in 1998 to 28 million in 2016. In the most recent ten-year period from 2006 to 2016 there has been a 28 percent reduction with a loss of over 5 million breeding ewes. This is a staggering reduction of breeding stock when compared to North America’s current breeding ewe inventory of just 3.5 million ewes. The situation in Australia is no better – sheep numbers have dropped 30 percent since 2006 and total inventory sits at around 46 million sheep.
Here at home in North America, the problem is a little more urgent. Not only are we facing an overall reduction in lamb numbers, our domestic markets are changing quickly. The consumer population is growing rapidly in size while simultaneously broadening in ethnic diversity, driving up demand higher than ever.
Is there is a solution? Yes. But to understand it, we must take a deeper delve into the nature of the North American lamb industry itself.
Why is late spring and early summer particularly challenging for lamb producers in North America?
Traditionally, lambs are born in the spring, raised until fall, and sheltered over the winter until they are ready for market. Lamb is typically in peak demand during the Christmas and Easter seasons. By Easter, most of the older flocks that have been kept aside from the previous winter have all gone to market and industry stocks require replenishment.
The new lambs are born over the winter on specially designed breeding farms, or in early spring on more traditional farms in warmer locations. A lamb can be up to twelve months of age and after that they are typically classified as mutton. Mutton has far less market demand and value.
In comparison to beef cattle that are brought to market between 20 and 30 months of age, it is clearly far more challenging to manage year-round supplies of lamb with traditional farming practices. SunGold Meats, a processing plant that specializes in lamb, feels the pressure from every side especially at this time of year. Some of our retail and foodservice customers are requesting (read: aggressively pleading) for higher output. Our employees have less work and lower pay cheques. Organizationally, reduced supply volumes wreak havoc to already slim bottom lines.
In other words: a solution is badly needed.
Where others see challenges and large risks, we see opportunity.
Not one to back down from a challenge, SunGold Meats is assembling a scalable infrastructure framework to ensure our foodservice and retail consumers will never run out of our products. Five years into executing on our plan we see the light. The upcoming years promise to be exciting and eventful for our business. We are already seeing the benefit to this strategy and are talking to retailers and others to find growth partners, particularly on our value-added program (easy to cook lamb burgers, sausage and meatballs).
SunGold Meats is surrounded by vast plains and pasture land, on the northern edge of the agricultural heartland that spans central North America. Over the last several years, we have fully renovated our plant facilities and constructed a state-of-the-art feedlot to bring the best of food safety and quality to our lambs. We are primed and ready for growth.
At the same time, Canada Sheep and Lamb Farms (CSLF), which is based on the eastern edge of the prairies, has built the largest, expanding breeding ewe flock in North America. CSLF’s strength has been the refinement of livestock management processes and genetics to produce lambs year-round at scale. This has obvious benefits for the entire lamb industry as the seasonality of the supply curve is smoothed out while other companies are annually experiencing a lamb shortage.
For consumers, we have found there is a great benefit in consistency and higher quality provided by a standardized nutrition program and specific maternal and terminal genetics. (Future articles will dive deeper into what will make our lamb special.)
Together, SunGold and CSLF have big goals to reshape the lamb industry in both local and international markets. A perennially-consistent lamb supply combined with great, repeatable consumer experiences will grow our business, the business of our retail and foodservice customers, and enrich the North American lamb market.
There is still much work to do, but at long last, we have cracked the code to achieving an audacious dream.