The Irish sheepmeat sector has had a very difficult start to 2023 with higher input costs and a weakening deadweight trade depressing producer returns.
The hogget trade came under significant pressure in the first few weeks of the year. However, there has been some recovery and stabilisation in quotes available as we moved into the second half of January, though the high input costs continue.
Current deadweight trade
Base quotes for hoggets are in the region of €6/kg (plus QA bonus), with processors paying up to 23kg, in most cases. While current deadweight prices for hoggets are trending ahead of the five-year average, the reported deadweight prices in recent weeks have been lower than the corresponding period in 2022.
The average hogget price for the week ending 29 January 2023 was €6.13/kg, 40c/kg behind the same week last year.
In the present tough trading environment, meeting market specifications should be a key focus of hogget finishers as cuts/primals produced from in-spec carcases will have the widest range of market possibilities and, in turn, give the greatest return to the sector.
Some reports have indicated that a sizeable number of lambs being presented for slaughter are outside the desired carcase weight ranges (18kg to 23kg) and fat cover (2 to 3).
While some of these out-of-spec lambs are under-finished and at low carcase weights, the majority are heavy lambs carrying extra cost to the producer with no financial return for the additional carcase weight gained.
Weaker consumer demand
Lamb is a high-cost meat compared to beef, pork and chicken and is therefore the most exposed to changes in consumer behaviour, both on the domestic market and in key export markets. Domestic consumption of lamb accounts for approximately 15% of total sheepmeat production with the balance being exported, primarily to Europe.
This dependency on exports leaves us more exposed to shifts in the global marketplace than some of our European competitors, who are much more domestically focused in terms of end markets for their lamb.
The latest data from Kantar Worldpanel has indicated a 5% increase in the value of retail lamb sales in Ireland during the 12 weeks ending 25 December 2022.
However, this increase in the overall value was driven by a higher average unit price, with volume sales back by 3% during the same period.
The trend has also been obvious across key export markets in the EU where the impact of increasing living costs, high levels of food inflation and reduced consumer spending power has had a detrimental effect on lamb sales.
Meat Shopper Insights data collected by Bord Bia in quarter four of 2022 has indicated declining consumer consideration for lamb in key export markets for Irish lamb, namely Belgium, Germany, Sweden, France and Italy, with the high price point being a key contributing factor to this trend.
While consumers are continuing to buy meat in these markets, there has been a shift in the balance across the proteins with consumers increasingly seeking lower-cost options.
Current lamb supplies
Reduced consumer demand for lamb on the European market has coincided with increased Irish production which has contributed to the downward pressure on the Irish deadweight trade in early 2023.
A downturn in demand for lamb imports in both the US and China in the second half of 2022 increased the availability of lamb available for trading on the global market.
This meant that increased volumes of frozen New Zealand sheepmeat were exported to the EU in the final months of 2022. This increase coincided with a notable increase in the volume of UK product being shipped into EU markets with some reports indicating notable volumes of lamb being held in storage across the EU.
The 2023 lamb crop in Ireland is expected to fall in 2023 with higher ewe cullings, reports of reduced concentrate feeding due to high costs and reports of a poorer scanning ratio on some farms.
All of this is expected to contribute to a decline in overall output. In the more immediate term, local hogget throughput is expected to hold fairly steady in the early months of 2023.
Analysis has indicated that an additional 60,000 to 70,000 hoggets have been carried into 2023 for processing when compared to 2022 levels. However, with fairly strong throughput being reported in local plants during January 2023, a proportion of these have already passed through the system.
Increases in lamb demand in domestic and key export markets are also expected in line with key religious festivals in 2023. This year, Ramadan falls on 22 March, Easter Sunday on 9 April and Eid al-Adha on 28 June.
These festivals have become increasingly important dates in the sheep farming calendar and should help to stimulate stronger demand for lamb from the marketplace.
Increasing import demand in China in recent weeks is once again redirecting Australian and New Zealand lamb away from the EU market which should contribute to a reduction in sheepmeat availability in the region as 2023 progresses.
Production is also expected to reduce across key lamb producing regions in the EU during 2023, with contractions in ewe numbers, high production costs and lower carcase weights all expected to contribute to this trend.
Meanwhile, production in the UK is expected to hold steady in 2023 following an increase in the ewe flock in 2022.
The value of Irish sheepmeat exports increased by 17% to total €476m during 2022, with the volume of exports increasing by 10% to 75,000t. However, much of this increase, in both value and volume terms, was during the first half of the year with exports in the second half of 2022 largely similar to the corresponding period in 2021.
Europe continues to be the main market outlet for Irish sheepmeat. However, securing access to the widest range of potential markets continues to be a key priority for Bord Bia.
The organisation continues to engage closely with the Department of Agriculture Food and the Marine and sheepmeat processors in developing market access.
There are significant opportunities for Irish lamb in the US and Chinese markets and achieving direct access to both markets remains a key focus of the sector in 2023.
Bord Bia stringently monitors and controls the use of the Bord Bia Quality Mark through an application approval process and retail audits. The Bord Bia Origin Ireland logo can only be used on meat products that meet all of the following criteria: QA animals, born and reared in the Republic of Ireland, slaughtered at QA plants in the Republic of Ireland, and any further processing, slicing and packing in Bord Bia-approved plants.
Bord Bia implements robust traceability requirements at all Bord Bia-approved meat processing facilities. During the meat processor audit, a detailed check of records and documentation is carried out for all meat dispatched.
The audit team will carry out traceability checks through random and targeted sampling of production records and documentation.
Auditors can request access to records for any day’s production from as far back as initial certification, to ensure full traceability of QA meat dispatched from the plant.
In 2023, Bord Bia will run two bursts of promotional activity to encourage Irish consumer to choose Bord Bia Quality Mark lamb.
The campaigns will feature TV ads, social media posts and videos, and partnerships with social media influencers.
The Quality Mark lamb campaigns will run from 5 to 25 June and from 18 September to 8 October.
Bord Bia’s export market promotion is primarily focused on the priority European markets of France, Germany, Belgium, Italy, Switzerland and the Nordics, although there will also be engagement in other markets where the opportunity arises.
Activity includes partnerships with leading retailers to promote Irish lamb, special St Patrick’s Day events, print and digital media campaigns targeting consumers, and engagement with buyers through trade fairs and market study visits to Ireland.
Outside of Ireland and Europe, Bord Bia continues to raise awareness of Ireland as a supplier of safe, high-quality, sustainable lamb through our EU co-funded beef and lamb campaign. The €4.78m campaign launched this year and is running in South Korea, Japan, China and the US.