In his welcome address, conference Chairman Ian Watson from organisers Farm Stock (Scotland) Ltd, stated:
“I look forward to the day, which I hope is not too distant, when we will have the kind of national organisations which will be able to regulate (lamb meat) supplies to the markets according to the requirements of the markets and which will eliminate the unnecessary elements in the distributing machine.”
That, he told the conference, was a direct quote from a 1929 report, produced by SAOS following research into the lamb meat supply chain prevalent upon farmers in the Scottish Borders at that time.
“Such sentiments and thoughts are, sadly, all too familiar to many gathered in our audience here today, 87 years on!” Mr Watson stated.
Bringing matters up to date, Mr Watson went on to cite the report from the recent Scottish Government Sheep Sector Review, which states that the industry ‘could do better and identifies several issues within the supply chain where improvement is required.
Essentially, and perhaps unsurprisingly, for the Chairman of Scotland’s biggest livestock co-operative, Ian Watson went on to outline his belief that greater understanding and collaborative working at all stages of the supply chain, from on-farm, through haulage, slaughter and processing, right down to the consumer, would be a key requirement in realising better returns for each link in the chain.
Fergus Ewing, Cabinet Secretary for the Rural Environment and Connectivity, gave a key note address to the conference
“We have a fabulous product in Scottish Lamb. QMS have set out to reach 86% of Scottish adults with their new advertising campaign. This is what we need, but also the sector must engage and work together with retailers to help going forward. These campaigns have succeeded in the past and, with support, will succeed again. I am also delighted, that looking further afield, there are tremendous opportunities now opening up in for example the US when their ban on importation of EU lamb is lifted next year.”
A programme of six speakers, each representing a different segment of the lamb supply chain, from farm to retail, then provided their perspectives.
First to speak was Dumfries and Galloway farmer Marcus Maxell, who re-iterated the strength of collaboration, citing his own Galloway Lamb marketing group as an example, and went on to lay down a challenge to those further up the chain. Stating that farmers, for one reason or another, often received mixed messages regarding market requirements in terms of carcase weight and confirmation, Mr Maxwell made a simple plea “pay us for the quality that you want.”
“I am experiencing the same problems selling lambs nowadays as when I first started 30 years ago. We have farmers have got to do something about issues like out-of-spec lambs.”
“Currently we are receiving mixed messages from further up the chain and it doesn’t help. I would urge the abattoirs to pay more for the in-spec lambs and penalise heavily for the out-of-spec lambs.”
It was therefore fitting that Dr Jonathan Birnie, head of Agriculture and Research at Dunbia, one of Europe’s largest red meat processors, was next on the platform.
Giving encouragement to the audience, Dr Birnie stated that lamb, whilst regarded as a luxury and expensive meat by many consumers is a “big market, getting bigger.”
“The global market for sheep meat is predicted to almost double in the next 3 decades, from the current level of around 13M tonnes to 25M tonnes as a result of greater global consumer affluence.”
“But, nobody buys lamb because it is cheap, they buy it because they like it. We therefore must give consistency in eating quality, a bad eating experience can turn the consumer off.”
“Farmers can use social media to connect directly with consumers, this is key.”
Dr Birnie went on to state that in his view, much of the inefficiency in the chain was caused by poor carcase quality lambs, especially overfat, entering the supply chain.
James Parsons, Chair of Beef + Lamb New Zealand brought an international flavour to the conference when he spoke on the realities of the NZ supply chain, long viewed as a competitor for Scotch Lamb.
“The New Zealand sheep industry is very much focussed on the export market, 90% of our output is exported,” Mr Parsons stated.
However, Mr Parsons also went on to show that the NZ sheep sector was not as strong as it had been, with their national ewe flock almost halving in numbers since 1990, mainly to accommodate an 87% increase in dairy cows over the same period. Increasing efficiency, resulting in more lambs sold per ewe, meant that the decline in marketed lamb meat had not been as steep.
“We are selling 9% less lamb than we were 25 years ago, but this is from 47% fewer ewes,”
“Increasing output per ewe and efficiencies are key objectives, but a lower cost of production only becomes a competitive advantage if you can bank it! Mr Parsons warned the conference.
Steve McLean, Head of Agriculture and Fisheries at M&S, followed on, and gave an announcement within his presentation that in future all lamb sold in his supermarket’s Scottish stores would be Scotch Lamb. This was warmly welcomed by the audience and presumably gave Mr Parsons some food for thought, given that M&S had previously split its lamb sourcing between UK and NZ.
However, in order to ensure consistency of supply from Scottish sheep farmers, Mr McLean echoed earlier pleas regarding hitting target specs.
“We find 15-18% of lambs arrive too heavy and are therefore out of spec. The fact is quite simply that if a lamb is too big it won’t fit in retail packs.”
Turning to the consumer, Mr McLean highlighted that lamb tends to appeal more to an older consumer. M&S are working to change this by promoting innovative products such as lamb lollipops and lamb kebabs, stated Mr McLean.
The final conference speaker, Nathan Ward from Kantar Worldpanel, was very much focussed on the demands of the consumer.
One solution, to boost demand for lamb, promoted by Mr Ward was to “make meals easy, not just quick,” – pointing out that the average meal takes 35 minutes to prepare and that consumers are now much more focussed on effort as opposed to further reducing time requirements.
Summarising all of the presentations and discussion from throughout the conference was left to Ian Watson of Farm Stock Scotland who commented:
“Within Farm Stock and as stated in the recent Scottish Government Sheep Sector Review we believe there is a £25m prize available to the industry if it can get the lamb supply chain right.”
“This conference has surely fired the starting pistol on the race to get it right. It is now down to the people in this room and the lead organisations identified in the Sheep Sector Review to ensure that something happens.”
“Our industry cannot afford to be drawing the same “could do better” conclusions in another 87 years’ time!”