Irish sheepmeat processing has transformed significantly over the last decade, with new markets for value added products opening regularly, delegates at the Agricultural Science Association (ASA) sheep masterclass were told.
The event was held at the headquarters of Irish Country Meats (ICM) in Camolin, Co Wexford, last week and co-ordinated by ASA president Amii McKeever.
Speaking at the event, ICM general manager John Walsh said in 2006 81% of Irish sheepmeat was going to France – that is down to 50% today.
John said this is down to the combined work by Bord Bia, ICM and other factories to secure markets in various European markets. ICM processes 1.1m sheep annually and maintains a 42% share of the total sheep kill in the country.
Potential for skins
John said he would love to see Irish lamb being sold in China because he believes there is a lot of opportunity there, especially for fifth quarter products and skins.
“It is a pity that they didn’t combine lamb with beef when they were making trade negotiations with the US and China,” he said.
“New Zealand has developed an impressive market share in China and there are also opportunities for Irish sheepmeat,” he continued.
John is hopeful that the future supply of lamb will remain strong and he mentioned the challenges that could threaten the supply, namely Brexit plus the need to attract young sheep farmers into the sector.
He said buyers do ask about supplies going into the future, so it is important to be able to give a confident answer.
Farmgate prices were strong in 2018 at an average annual price of €5.04/kg paid to farmers, which was up 27c/kg compared with 2017, according to Walsh.
He said it looks like hogget prices will see record highs this spring, with prices currently at €5.58c/kg and the potential to rise further as the spring progresses.
Clean livestock policy
Contentious issues, such as the clean livestock policy (CLP), weight limits and electronic tagging, were also raised.
“March  through to the end of the year, the presentation of livestock has been much better – it has been a step change how farmers now present their sheep for slaughter,” said John.
“The CLP has worked wonders and retailers are insisting [on] it as a given now,” he explained.
On weight limits, Walsh said ICM would not waiver from its current programme.
“Some farmers say why don’t you pay to 26kg, but the reason is supermarkets are gauged that every product must hit a certain price point,” Walsh said.
During the factory tour, he showed an example of legs in packaging that were all very close to the same weight.
John explained if one of these legs was a little heavier, it would result in the retail price increasing and consumers would avoid it, opting for the lower-priced option.
With regards to another contentious subject electronic tagging, John said the debate should not centre solely on what the tagging costs, highlighting that it is an opportunity lost as all our competitors have it.
“The Germans have the ambition that QR codes will have pictures of farmers where the lamb was sourced,” he said, outlining how demands in the market are changing.
With electronic tagging, he believes it could be an opportunity to displace New Zealand product, as it doesn’t have it.
He says better identification technology could also make it easier for every farmer to receive kill and health reports on each animal slaughtered.