Marketing grassfed lamb

A place to discuss where and how to market our products. Users can share experiences with value-added enterprises, ask for information on costs, and find out who's paying what for what kind of lambs.
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Postby Paul DeWitte » Mon Oct 06, 2008 4:00 pm

This is a very interesting subject. Also I think that not everyone has the same taste so one size does not necessarily fit all.

I have always thought that one of the reasons for the decline in demand for beef is the boxed beef thing that came about a number of years ago. It made things at the retail end go faster and cheaper, but maybe at quality expense.

When you kill it one day and put it in a bag the next and send it to a store, when does it age? Or does it age properly?

The local butcher shop that ages his product properly has a MUCH better tasting end product regardless of species. Just compare a cut of meat from a chain store with one from your local butcher.

The place where we usually get our meat processed told me that if you want to leave a beef hang for 2 weeks it has to have an adequate fat cover. Maybe a grass fed animal could not hang quite that long if it did not have the fat cover?

I am guessing a lamb may have some of the same issues as beef when it comes to aging. I am convinced that what happens between the time that you take it in to the butcher (or big slaughter plant) and when you take it home can make or break the next sale depending on flavor,tenderness,etc.

Just my 2 cents worth.
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Postby lovetree » Mon Oct 06, 2008 10:01 pm

Doubling aging time has a down side. Increased carcass shrinkage and cutting loss, doubling cooler requirements, increased energy costs, slower turn on investment and increased capital requirements if purchasing ready to harvest lambs.


It only has a slower return on your investment if you do not have a market in place. Offering a superior product for sale will set your product apart from the competition and insure your market position and enable you to jostle for market position if new in the marketplace.

My butcher told me that the primary cost in aging lambs was for the initial cooling down of the carcass,(the first 24 hours) after that, they took up so little room compared to beef and hogs that it wasnt an issue for him.
I dont understand what you mean by an increase in capital investment if purchasing ready to harvest lambs.
Mary Falk / LoveTree Farmstead
home of the dual purpose Trade Lake Sheep and the nationally celebrated Trade Lake Cedar Cheese
NW Wisconsin
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Postby lovetree » Mon Oct 06, 2008 10:06 pm

When you kill it one day and put it in a bag the next and send it to a store, when does it age? Or does it age properly?


When meat is processed in the manner that you describe it actually does not age because it is deprived of the fresh air that it needs for the aging process. If left in air tight plastic wrap where it will sit in it's own juice and not be able breathe it will spoil or rot instead of age if not consumed in a short amount of time.
Mary Falk / LoveTree Farmstead
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NW Wisconsin
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Postby Bill Fosher » Tue Oct 07, 2008 4:41 am

Hi Mary,

I'm working with a group that is researching setting up a small local slaughterhouse. Extended hanging times were one of the things we heard over and over as a perceived need from the producer community. (Interestingly, there was almost no demand for dry-aged meat from consumers, so I'm wondering if the demand would really be there.)

We looked at the ramifications of building a plant that could accommodate extended hanging times -- at least outside of the busiest season -- and found that it really adds to the costs.

While lambs may take up less space than beef or hogs, they still take up space. If you're aging them for twice as long, you need twice as much cooler space as you would otherwise, or you can only process half as many lambs. There's no other way around it.

If the plant is running well below capacity, there's probably no issue, which was one of the reasons that we were discussing offering extended hanging times when the kill floor is not fully booked.

I'm presuming that Darroll was remarking on the reduced rate of inventory turnover that this process would allow versus a standard hang time. Let's assume that a plant has the capacity to hang 1000 lambs in its cooler. When that cooler is full, it has to stop slaughtering lambs. Suppose it takes three days to kill and skin 1000 lambs. With a three-day hang time, the cooler is used efficiently -- carcasses are moving to the cutting room or loading dock as they enter from the hot cooler. The plant can kill 333 lambs per day, five days a week, 20 days per month. That's 6600 lambs per month.

Double that hang time without doubling cooler capacity, and the plant can only kill for three days, then it must wait for three days until the six-day-old carcasses are ready to cut. Now we're down to 3300 lambs per month. In a business where most of the profit comes on a per-head basis, you've just cut revenue in half. And you have capital and manpower on the kill floor that is idle. If you double cooler capacity, you maintain the revenue stream, but greatly increase expenses, both in terms of opportunity cost for the investment and in the monthly utility bill.

For the producer direct marketing lamb, an extended hang time also means fewer units sold in a given amount of time. Slower inventory turnover means more money tied up in inventory, and hence a greater opportunity cost. It will also mean (eventually) increased slaughter and processing fees. If the market will bear it, and your plant has the capacity, then this is all well and good.

I'm not going to argue about flavor or tenderness; I've never had dry-aged anything. The process could very well be the bomb from that perspective, but the costs of it must be recognized.
Bill Fosher
Westmoreland, NH
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Postby Darroll Grant » Tue Oct 07, 2008 9:06 am

Spot on Bill. I tried to keep my post short.
Forty plus years ago quality beef carcasses were dry aged in the commodity trade. Then to facilitate product flow and decrease space requirements it was the high value prime cuts that were aged. Due to shrinkage and space requirements aging primals in cryovac with the air evacuated was used extensively. Product could be shelved in the cooler to maximize space utilization. Electrical stimulation prior to movement from the kill floor to the cooler was introduced. Now emphasis is being placed on identifying genetically tender cattle lines and multiplying them.
That brings me back to identifying sheep lines that genetically produce a superior eating experience without altering the current product flow.

The biochemical and physiological processes of aging meat are much more complex than posted earlier and too lengthy to post here.

The bottom line is that if your system keeps the banker happy and the kids fed and clothed--go for it, but it may not be for everyone.
Darroll Grant
western Oregon
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Postby Janet McNally » Tue Oct 07, 2008 9:10 am

I sent some lambs along with a trial run at a slaughter plant in SD. They cut and packaged the meat right away, I was amazed at how well it turned out. I'm not sure if they added a treatment (gas?) but what ever they did, it worked.

Janet
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Postby lovetree » Tue Oct 07, 2008 9:58 pm

That brings me back to identifying sheep lines that genetically produce a superior eating experience without altering the current product flow.


There are many different ways to package and preserve meat....but if you want to achieve entry to a high end market, dry aging is a guaranteed ticket, although it is not for everyone. Even so, you can not take just any piece of meat and dry age it and expect it to be successful, the genetics still have to be there for a quality product, the dry aging just puts it "over the top".
I havent experienced the problems that have been stated earlier about
increase in costs for processing or slowing down my 'flow", but I am also a small producer not a large feedlot or a co op.
As it stands now, the unique flavor and texture derived from dry aging our lamb allows me to
ask a premium price for my lambs and create repeat customers....two
important marketing points for a direct market niche.
I have used three different processors, and none of them have ever had a problem with aging lambs at least 2 weeks, however, I did have one processor that refused to age them longer than 3 days....so I do not use him for my business.
Mary Falk / LoveTree Farmstead
home of the dual purpose Trade Lake Sheep and the nationally celebrated Trade Lake Cedar Cheese
NW Wisconsin
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Postby Richard Ehrhardt » Tue Nov 11, 2008 3:40 pm

Hi,

Forgive my belated response to this engaging discusssion on grass fed production.

For what it is worth, for better or worse, I have not been a formal part of the sheep program at Cornell until 2 years ago when I was asked to be a member of its advisory panel. So, in short, it was not I who made the disparaging comment on grass fed production. On the other hand, I maybe wish I had because it brought out a whole bunch of interesting discussion.

Kathy Soder made some excellent points on the two camps concerning grass-fed production in describing the zealots vs. those with a more pragmatic approach who want to increase production efficiency and cater to high-end markets. These markets, right or wrong, believe that grass fed production produces a product with certain nutritional benefits (CLA and overall fat content) along with a production model that is considered more sustainable and visually pleasing (lambs frolicking on pasture vs. eating a TMR in drylot). I tend to be in the camp that thinks the consumer is ultimately "correct" and therefore think it is well worth taking grass-based production strategies seriously for a variety of reasons as they can be very efficient and produce an excellent product that is highly valued by the consumer. As pointed out by others here, finishing lambs on grass requires high quality forage and proper grazing management to provide enough energy and protein intake to create a "finished" product. Unless this is done well, a grass fed product can be pretty terrible and damage public perception of our product. Recently, I finished a group of lambs on some high sugar rye grass varieties I planted this year and they gained really well and the lambs looked great at slaughter. I would not have put these lambs on the pastures my mid pregnant ewes were grazing and have expected the same results of course.

On the topic of lamb handling and aging, there is a lot of variation in how lamb is aged and processed and am not always sure what rationale there might be for all of these different methods. My limited education in this area (meat science courses at UW Madison) taught me that cold shortening is to be avoided (rapid chilling of a hot carcass prior to rigor) and that typical aging procedures (not those that cultivate bacterial or mold action) don't have much impact on tenderness of young lamb and may tend to decrease shelf life. Seems like I will need to do more research in this area as there are lots of different ideas to consider and am curious if there is much science behind them.

Richard Ehrhardt
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Postby Paul DeWitte » Tue Nov 11, 2008 9:38 pm

Richard, we took a 2 year old ewe with a bad udder in and had her butchered last week. When I asked if it payed to let her hang and age, one of the owners said that sheep do not age like cattle on the rail. He was very firm on this.

Just wondering if in your education you found this to be true or not? I do not remember his reasoning, but he said that sheep were more like hogs than cattle when it came to aging.

It tastes good so something is right.

Paul
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Postby lovetree » Tue Nov 11, 2008 11:15 pm

I am not Richard, but here is my input based on my experience ...
all meat benefits from aging(including poultry) if it is properly aged according to the proper conditions for the type of meat that it is. If your sheep was very lean with no fat cover and if he did not have the proper environment to age the meat (proper temp and humidity) then the meat will be more susceptible to drying out since the carcass is much smaller than a beef carcass.
Mary Falk / LoveTree Farmstead
home of the dual purpose Trade Lake Sheep and the nationally celebrated Trade Lake Cedar Cheese
NW Wisconsin
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Postby K Bar K Farm » Wed Nov 12, 2008 7:18 am

I recently heard Susan Duckett (Clemson U.) talk about carcass traits.

See figure 5 of the following paper for information on how tenderness rated with increased aging.

http://www.onstedfarm.com/Meat_quality_comparison.pdf

In the talk I heard, she recommended an optimum aging of 5 days (balancing tenderness with the logistics of holding carcasses in the cooler of an abbatoir) with 3 days being an absolute bare minimum. Longer than 5 days will continue to increase tenderness, but especially with grass-fed products with less fat cover, you will get more shrinkage of the carcass due to dehydration.

There are other references out there if you google her name, or some of the folks from the US Sheep Experiment Station in ID (i.e. Gary Snowder).

Kathy
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Postby lovetree » Wed Nov 12, 2008 3:46 pm

Hi Kathy,

University studys are always very interesting to read.
You will notice in the study it starts off by stating that the consumers that tasted the lamb found the flavor of lamb to be the least pleasing of all of the meats. The study goes on to quote other "studys" that refer to "lamb" flavor as a bad thing and the goal was to find a lamb with the least amount of lamb flavor.

When lamb is properly dry aged it not ony becomes much more tender, but the flavor also becomes much sweeter, just as it does in beef and vension.
It would definitley be interesting to see what results the study would reflect if the study polled quality chefs for their input.

What I took away from the study was this..
if you are trying to sell lamb to a none lamb eating crowd, then find a breed of sheep that imparts as little lamb flavor to the end product as possible, and graze on grasses that impact the flavor as little as possible, and if that is your market niche, then that is just fine.

However, (IMHO) if you are trying to sell a product through direct sale that is commanding top dollar, then you need to have some outstanding attributes to your product that will sail it over the rest. Dry aging is one tool that a producer can use to help attain higher quality product status.

In regard to finer wool sheep having a more "intense" lamb flavor..
Some of the best lamb I have ever eaten was in Spain from "lambs" that were actually a little over a year old. The lamb was "lambier" in flavor but they cook their chops differently over there and it made for an extraordinary and memorable meal.

There is a difference between a gamey tasting lamb and a sweet, more concentrated and flavorful lamb..that is the key.

It would sure be nice if we could get some university researchers on board that are also "foodies" who understand the differences in flavor etc then we could really get some interesting survey data. ;-)
Mary Falk / LoveTree Farmstead
home of the dual purpose Trade Lake Sheep and the nationally celebrated Trade Lake Cedar Cheese
NW Wisconsin
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