Changes needed to move lamb sector forward

Like a doctor delivering bad news to a patient, Martin Gooch gave it straight to the Ontario sheep sector: the industry continues to be disjointed and inefficient with a lack of benchmarks to define a successful farm.

Like a good doctor, Gooch also delivered some optimism.

“You could double production and have room for growth and that is without expanding the current market for lamb,” said the chief executive officer of Value Chain Management International, which analyzed the state of the industry for Ontario Sheep Farmers.

Gooch, who presented the results of the analysis at the Ontario Sheep Convention in Alliston, Ont., said there’s more potential in lamb production than in any other sector of the Canadian agriculture sector.

Ontario Sheep Farmers chair Rob Scott said the goal of the study was to identify barriers to expansion in the industry.

“I was adamant, because of feedback I got from producers, that this not be the type of benchmarking study that got put in a folder and put on a shelf,” he said.

“I’m very happy with the way it turned out.”

Ontario Sheep Farmers has adopted Gooch’s report and has started to work on its recommendations under the EweGROW program name, which general manager Jennifer MacTavish said will be one of the organization’s flagship programs.

The information wasn’t new. Ontario lamb production has suffered from great potential at the same time as a lack of sector-wide growth for generations, despite attempts at building value-chain models in the past.

Gooch identified several foundational steps that are lacking in the sector that competitors around the world implemented decades ago.

He said the sector has the characteristics of an emerging industry with a lack of reliable information, marketing orientation and collective behaviour.

A lack of grading system and market communications means lamb producers are not rewarded for producing higher quality lamb.

Gooch said the extensive surveys of farmers and others in the sector during the study show that the lack of sector foundations has meant discouraged producers, especially larger sheep farmers with more than 400 ewes.

“Lamb is not rewarded according to its value,” said Gooch, meaning that a producer of high quality lamb versus low quality lamb isn’t rewarded enough for the work that is put into producing a better product.

Gooch’s report outlines first steps that can be taken to create more information flow, knowledge and eventually more sales in the industry. The road map aims for the industry to adopt the ethos of continuous improvement that underlies other sectors.

The first is benchmarking, which has been lacking in the industry. It’s one of the reasons why there is little understanding of the gold standards, which are the best ways to produce lamb and make business decisions in the Ontario market.

Gooch’s study looked at Ontario’s competitors, including the United Kingdom, Australia and New Zealand.

Australia has been benchmarking sheep flocks of more than 1,000 ewes since the 1970s, while New Zealand has been gathering 1,300 data points from 550 farm visits a year since the 1950s.

In the United Kingdom, average-sized flocks have been surveyed since 1936.

Meat quality is the second area where improvement is needed, said Gooch, and that starts with actually measuring it.

“The purpose of grading is misunderstood,” he said.

“The grading purpose is to provide objective feedback to producers on the value of lamb and how their operations are performing. It can help create common language that applies from farm to farm. Grading rewards producers who create good value and penalizes those who don’t.

Gooch’s third area where the industry needs to improve is in research and engagement. The sheep industry has much lower levels of research conducted at the University of Guelph compared to other industry sectors, Gooch said.

Ontario Sheep Farmers has started collecting grading data and will continue to do so, involving processors, Ontario Agriculture and producers.

“Every year we’re going to get the processors to provide us with information on how lambs have been grading to show the industry and the processors if there’s been any improvement,” MacTavish said.

The data will also help make the case for the sheep industry during discussions with funders and government.

“We have historically been short of the information needed to go in to make proper arguments,” Scott said.

“Some of the stuff that’s going to come out of this is things we aren’t going to want to hear, but it’s what we have to hear.”

Shepherds are still receiving strong prices for lamb despite an inability to fill the Ontario market, which is a disconnect from the global market where lamb is priced lower. That also means suppliers around the world are looking at the Canadian market.

An international marketing group set up a bridgehead in Toronto to figure out how they can get more of their lamb into the Ontario and Canadian market, said Gooch.

“Your market is so good, international competitors are purposely targeting your market,” he said.

“You have other people stealing your breakfast.”

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