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Meeting Sheep Market Specifications

Meeting market specifications at point of slaughter will help maximise returns from finishing lambs.

The current specification from the major processors is generally for R grading lambs or better with a fat score of 2 or 3 and a carcase weight of up to 21kg. While there are markets for lamb produced from carcases outside these specifications the marketing options are much more limited. Irish processors also have a strong preference for lambs with Quality Assured (QA) status with bonuses available to the producer at point of slaughter.

Carcase weight and fat cover

Consistently presenting lambs for slaughter that meet customer specifications can help maximise profits at farm level. Upper carcase weight limits can vary across the year from 20-23kg over the course of the year and there is no economic sense in keeping lambs to heavier carcase weights if they can be finished sooner.

Killing a lamb with adequate fat cover is also essential to meet customer requirements. There have some been reports of under-finished lambs being presented for slaughter in recent weeks due to deadweight prices coming under pressure. There are significant penalties in place for under-finished carcases which undermine any price gains from killing lambs before they are ready. 

Handling and weighing lambs regularly should be encouraged as it allows the producer to gain knowledge on how their lambs are performing and killing out. Regular weighing and handling will avoid lambs been drafted that fail to meet current market specifications because they are overweight, have a poor conformation or are over fat/under fleshed. Where a producer is selling lambs live they should be presented for sale in even batches to maximise returns.

Animal handling

Careful handling of live sheep is also important as sheep bruise very easily, especially young lambs. Producers should not handle or move sheep by grabbing the wool as this can often create a surface bruise that requires part of the carcase to be trimmed or discarded, thereby devaluing of the whole carcase. Particular attention should also be paid when sheep are in pens or being transported as any overcrowding or mishandling can also result in bruised or damaged carcases which reduces the animal’s value.

Producers should also avoid presenting dirty sheep for slaughter with particular attention paid to the tail area which should be free from any contamination. Dirty animals should be dagged or crutched before sale and where applicable lambs should have their belly clipped to avoid soil contamination. To help minimise the chance of lambs becoming dirty during transit they should be fasted for at least one hour prior to transportation and then transported in a clean dry vehicle.

Quality Assured Lamb in the Marketplace

Achieving Bord Bia Quality Assurance (QA) status allows Irish sheep producers to keep their options open when marketing their lambs, while also providing on farm benefits. The enhanced assurances on animal welfare, food safety, traceability and care for the environment provided by the Sustainable Beef and Lamb Assurance Scheme (SBLAS) allows Irish processors to service the high value domestic market where retail and food service customers include QA status as a key requirement of their product specification.

While having QA status on Irish lamb has been important on the domestic market for some time there has recently been growing interest from some key customers in the EU market in sourcing QA lamb, particularly those who already source QA beef. While there is some variability across the year approximately 60% of sheep processed in Ireland have QA status at point of slaughter. By comparison 95% of beef is QA at point of slaughter.

Purchasers of Irish lamb products are increasingly looking for proof that the meat is produced sustainably on farms that are certified members of an accredited Quality Assurance Scheme which is based on sustainability principles incorporating environmental, social and economic aspects. The SBLAS was developed to help meet these demands from the marketplace.