In Northeast Ohio, there is more demand for locally sourced lamb from restaurants and groceries than any one farm can supply given that the average size of a flock in Ohio is only 40 ewes. A given restaurant might request five hundred lambs. Meanwhile, national studies suggest that the inconsistencies among flocks is a major barrier to the industry. The hypothesis for this project was that the ultrasound scanning that seed stock producers use can be used for commercial flocks to evaluate carcass yields. Ensuring even lambs from various flocks was the goal in creating a co-op for producers to market locally.
The Northcoast Lamb Co-Op was created through this grant from Sustainable Agricultural Research Education (SARE) and matched by the Farmer Rancher Grant group project leader. This Farmer Rancher grant included three Ohio farms: The Spicy Lamb Farm, a Countryside Conservancy Farm in the Cuyahoga Valley National Park (CVNP) in Peninsula; Ohio; The Miller Farm, an Amish Family Farm in Fredericksburg, Ohio, near the Mount Hope Auction; and The Northcoast Sheep Farm at The Foundry Project in Cleveland, Ohio. They are all working board members of Urban Shepherds, a non-profit organization promoting the grazing of feeder lambs as a sustainable solution for managing landscaping before taking lambs to market locally. Through this grant, they formed the Northcoast Lamb Co-Op. All three farmers raise polled production Dorset sheep and have accelerated lambing calendars.
The group project leader is a National Sheep Improvement Program Certified Ultrasound Scanner. Ultrasound Carcass scanning equipment was purchased for the Northcoast Lamb Co-Op through this grant from Sustainable Agricultural Research Education and matched by the Spicy Lamb Farm.
All three farms advocate and practice sustainable farming practices including riparian setbacks, rotational grazing, and nutrient management.
In Northeast Ohio, there is more demand for locally produced lamb than the average farm flock can supply. Creating the Northeast Lamb Co-Op, a co-op of producers created to market together to local groceries and restaurants, is a solution that three lamb producers decided to implement through a grant from Sustainable Agricultural Research Education in order to ensure quality and consistency; carcass scanning was used as a criterion for acceptance.
The American Sheep Industry may be the oldest livestock organization in the county, however, American lamb consumption and the frequency of consumption is lower than other sources of protein. And, a majority is imported from Australia and New Zealand. Of course, many factors influence meat quality and eating quality – from the birth of the lamb to its processing, packaging, and cooking. But a substantial proportion of the differences in texture, juiciness, and flavor are attributable to variation between individual animals.
Muscle density, as determined by carcass scanning, is one quantitative measure that has been associated with quality. Substantial genetic progress has been made using selection criteria. One of these breeding values is carcass scanning. The size of lion eye between the 12th and 13th rib has been used as the measurement to meet the requirements of the processors and retailers in terms of weight, size, and fat composition of the most valuable cuts. Muscle density measurements also have a strong negative correlation with intramuscular fat levels.
According to the American Sheep Industry Roadmap 2014
“Lamb has the characteristics to be widely accepted as the “premier meat” among the major animal proteins: beef, pork, chicken, and seafood. Lamb has a very desirable flavor and an extremely positive nutritional profile. Lamb can strengthen its position in the meat case if it promotes its attributes and delivers high quality product on every eating occasion. However, the industry acknowledges that excess fat and inconsistency are the U.S. lamb industry’s biggest detractions from its premier status.”
Many producers sell their lamb at auction houses where they are sold based on their weight. The roadmap found that: “Buying slaughter animals on weight provides incentive to overfeed lambs under certain market conditions – resulting in excess fat. Buying on weight and yield provides no economic incentive to produce high quality lamb.”
The industry needs to reduce the excess fat and inconsistent quality which can damage the quality of the brand. Individual quality attributes of the lamb carcass and its parts can provide a higher quality consistent product to the consumer.
The local food sector is growing rapidly. Locally produced goods are viewed as far superior to those imported from long distances. Taste is coming back into fashion and the consumer is prepared to pay more for local food. Consumers are interested in the origin of meat and produce, the nutritional and health benefits, and the best way to store, prepare, and cook the meats and produce.
For the producer, lambs need to be sold for highest net price. And, while direct marketing will increase profitability, most lambs are sold at auction. Auction lambs are shipped to packers out of state, so the local economy does not benefit from the local food multiplier that can generate economic development.
The goal of this project was to implement value-based lamb recommendations, emphasizing higher production criteria, which leads to wider product acceptance. The Co-op will work with any urban or rural farmer whose purpose is, to not only distribute and market lamb at a profit, but to produce the required high quality, consistent lamb demanded by a more discriminating marketplace.
Northcoast Lamb Co-op’s mission is to provide quality lamb to local restaurants and groceries and to assist member shepherds in producing the required consistent quality lamb demanded.
Through the grant, the Northcoast Lamb Co-op members can take advantage of ultrasound technology to improve the overall quality of their flocks, making carcass scanning available and affordable. The Co-Op is recruiting new members to assist with the distribution and marketing of high value, quality lamb.
The goals of Northcoast Lamb Co-Op: Using Carcass Scanning for Producer Production Criteria include:
- Recruiting new members to participate in the direct marketing and distribution of high value, quality lamb.
- Making ultrasound technology available regionally.
- Helping to improve the overall quality of flocks in Northeast Ohio.
The first step in the process of forming the Northcoast Lamb Co-Op was a literature review on the national and local markets for lamb. Through our literature review we were able to determine the demand for lamb and consumer demographics. Much of these data can be transferred to other regions and supplemented by local data. ESRI Business Analyst On-line to gather regional statistics for the project.
A literature review was also conducted on carcass scanning. While carcass scanning is used by seed stock producers globally, the Irish industry was subsidizing using the technology to randomly sample lambs in commercial flocks throughout the country, creating a benchmark to see where the industry stood. While this project called for all the lambs in the flocks to be scanned, the co-op plans to use the Irish random sample model for future members recruited.
The American Sheep Industry’s Roadmap stresses the importance of increasing Value Based and Grid Pricing and encourages data feedback throughout the entire production chain, for feeders and producers to use the best data available to produce the highest quality lamb, and for commercial and seed stock producers to respond to lamb quality indicators.
Having found carcass scanning as a quality control measure, the Northcoast Lamb Co-Op conducted a literature review in order to determine who lamb consumers might be.
For the majority of consumers, lamb is an occasional meat of choice. This is partly a reflection of the retail price to the consumer and the perceived limited versatility of lamb as a dish. More public health campaigns are needed to make the consumer aware of the nutritional quality of lamb –the healthy red meat.
A review of the 2013 The Tri-Lamb Group study on American lamb consumption which provided demographic information on consumers. For example, the average household income was $70,000. A number of factors were important to the consumer in choosing lamb.
According to Lean on Lamb, a 3 oz. serving of lamb provides nearly five times the amount of the essential omega-3 fatty acid, alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), compared to a 3 oz. serving of beef.
An American Lamb Attitude & Usage Study in 2011 found that only One in six households (16%) eats lamb, but do not prepare lamb in their household. Customers want Easy to follow recipes, need a Better understanding of the various cuts of lamb, and require Instruction on cooking/demonstrations.
According to an American Lamb Consumer Taste Test Report in 2013, Health and nutrition are significant drivers. A consumer taste study found that lamb is more tender, flavor, and juicy than any other meats. 71% would prefer to buy American lamb in their stores, yet only 47% would be willing to pay 20% more for lamb from the U.S.
These data from the literature review and local demographics can be used for the co-op or farms direct marketing to see how many local lamb customers there might be.
Using The Spicy Lamb Farm as a direct marketing lamb example, the marketing options include selling directly to customers, selling at the local farmer’s market, and selling directly to restaurants and grocery stores via the North Coast Lamb Co Op.
Within 15-minute drive of the farm, there are 19, 234 households with an average household income of $97,356; within 30-minute drive time there are 548,473 households with and average household income of $77, 563; within a 60-minute drive there are 1,664,575 households with an average household income of $73,195. If one in five households have prepared lamb with in the past year, of which 20% buy from the farmers’ markets and 10% buy directly from the farmer.
To accomplish the goal of improving the quality of flocks, the Northcoast Lamb Co-Op plans to use carcass ultrasound of lamb crops for acceptance. This methodology is used as a breeding value by the National Sheep Improvement Program’s LambPlan for seed stock producers. The Northcoast Lamb Co-Op has implemented this for commercial flocks too.
By using random sample scanning of commercial flocks that enroll in the Northcoast Lamb Co-Op, an average 2.5 square inch loin muscle is used as criteria for acceptance to market lamb in the co-op. So lambs are not purchased based on weight alone. As a result, Local restaurants and groceries are assured of better meat quality. And, producers are encouraged to measure what they manage, leading to increased profitability and competitiveness.
No excess fat or inconsistent quality can damage the quality of the Northcoast Lamb Co-Op brand. The co-op can market consistent, high quality lamb as the healthy red meat choice: more tender, flavorful, and juicy than any other meats; known for its high iron and B-vitamin complex, essential omega-3 fatty acid —- an excellent source of protein.
Carcass Scanning for seed stock producers has long been common in United Kingdom, Australia, and New Zealand. In America, Availability of National Sheep Improvement Program Certified Ultrasound Scanners is growing with the need to measure carcass as a breeding value.
For this project, the NSIP certified ultrasound scanner measured the flocks’ loin eye between the 12th and 13th rib as per industry standards. The normal range from the flocks was 1.8 to -3.6 square inches with an average of 2.5. Spring, fall, and winter lamb crops from the three farms were scanned. Perhaps, because all three farms raised the same breed and had similar production practices, the data found the lambs to be even. Dorsets were chosen by the farmers due to their accelerated capability. The co-op, however, plans to accept other breeds that meet the carcass loin eye criterion and plans to publish the results and comparisons among breeds and production practices. What was accomplished is the procedure of using the scanning for acceptance into the co-op so that the consumer has consistent quality when the farmers combine their livestock to direct market locally.
In addition to the farmers participating in this project, a number of other organizations and people participated including:
- Urban Shepherds, a non-profit providing administrative support
- Ohio State University, Ohio Cooperative Development Center Program Director, Tom Synder, provided support and direction on forming the Northcoast Lamb Co-op
- Ohio Ecological Food and Farming Association (OEFFA): provided technical support, invited the project leader to speak at their annual conferences, and sponsored North Coast Lamb Co-op workshop
- Conservancy for the Cuyahoga Valley National Park: advertised field days at The Spicy Lamb Farm
- Countryside Conservancy: promoted co-op events
- Ohio Sheep Improvement Association (OSIA): the co-op exhibited at annual Ohio Sheep Day and Buckeye Shepherds Symposium, advertisements for the co-op scanning were published in the OSIA newsletters
- American Sheep Industry: the co-op exhibited at annual conferences
- American Lamb: marketing materials were provided for the lamb producers interested in direct marketing through the co-op
The hypothesis for this project was that the carcass ultrasound scanning used by seed stock producers for breeding selection could also be used for value added acceptance into a co-op. Using three production poll Dorset flocks with similar production practices, the results of carcass scanning were comparable and lambs from these flocks were considered even enough to ensure consistent quality for the restaurant and stores purchasing the meat. This methodology will be used by the three farms in the co-op to expand and include other regional producers in supplying lamb for local demand. This methodology was found to be far more reliable than using weight and visual observations which could result in smaller loin eyes and too much back fat.
As the co-op has begun to recruit other producers to the co-op, the biggest barrier discovered is that it is perceived to be easier to just drop off lambs at the auction house and not to get involved in direct marketing. As this project moves forward, it will be critical to demonstrate that it is more profitable to direct market. In this study, only the a-seasonal lambing which did not market at Easter or ethnic holidays could be shown to be more profitable. Targeting breeds that lamb throughout the year made the most sense for the co-op. In addition, having data on carcass traits was found to be valuable for both seed stock and commercial producers. The biggest barriers to using the ultrasound scanning are the cost of the equipment and the shortage of certified scanners. The co-op plans to grow and provide scanning to all its members.
Through the Northcoast Lamb Co-op project, sheep producers learned about the value of using ultrasound technology to select breeding stock and improve product quality. They will have on-going access to affordable carcass ultrasound scanning to enhance the market quality of their lamb and to measure muscle quality deficiencies. The Co-op will continue to assist members in identifying new strategies and methods to improve the quality of their flocks to help meet the rising demand for high value, quality lamb. This project is already assisting members with the distribution and marketing of consistent quality lamb.
Evaluations are being used by producers to make better informed decisions which will result in better meat quality, leading to increased profitability and competitiveness.
The Northcoast Lamb Co-Op has produced flyers, a hand book, slides, and a video which can be downloaded from the webpage hosted by Urban Shepherds. Ads will continue to run in the Ohio Sheep Improvement Association publications (reaching 600). Booths will continue to be set up at Ohio Sheep Day (reaching 150), Buckeye Shepherds Symposium (reaching 275), and the American Sheep Industries annual conference. Annual workshops, field days, and events (with 20 to 40 participants attending) are scheduled to continue after the SARE funding period.
During the SARE Grant Period, the Northcoast Lamb Co-op held the following events in 2015:
- April 17 workshop in Cleveland – 12 attended from Detroit, Toledo, and Northeast Ohio
- May 16 workshop at The Spicy Lamb Farm – 20 attended from across north Ohio
- July11 exhibit at Ohio Sheep Day – 50 flyers on the Co-Op and scanning checklists distributed
- October 31st OSIA Tour and Demonstration – 20 attended
- December 12 Buckeye Shepherds Symposium – 50 flyers on the Co-Op and scanning checklists distributed
In 2016, the following events were held:
- January 28-29 American Sheep Industry Conference in AZ – 100 flyers on the Co-Op distributed
- February 13 – OEFFA – 50 attended
- March 5th, Urban Shepherds workshop – 14 attended
- April chef tasting at The Foundry Project – 65 attended
- May 14th Countryside Conservancy education program workshop at The Spicy Lamb Farm – 26 attended
- June 11th workshop sponsored by OEFFA at The Spicy Lamb Farm – 12 attended
- July 9th exhibit at the Ohio Sheep Day – – 50 flyers on the Co-Op and scanning checklists distributed
- September fall workshops/demonstrations at Miller Farm and in Middlefield/Mesopotamia brought in small crowds of Amish
- September 24th field day at The Spicy Lamb Farm – 50 attended
- December 10th exhibit at the Buckeye Shepherds Symposium – – 50 flyers on the Co-Op and scanning checklists distributed
In 2017, the following events are being held:
- January 26th/27th American Sheep Industry conference in Denver.- 100 50 flyers on the Co-Op and scanning checklists distributed
- June 10th – a field day at The Spicy Lamb Farm is planned
- July 15th – an exhibit at Ohio Sheep Day is Planned
- September 23rd– a field day at The Spicy Lamb Farm is planned
- December 2nd – an exhibit at the Buckeye Shepherds Symposium is planned
As the North Central Region SARE Program continues the Farmer Rancher Grant Program, a forum of cross marketing and transfer of technologies would be helpful. The Northcoast Lamb Co-op hopes to provide support to other regions wanting to make ultrasound scanning affordable and accessible to producers.
The objective is to compare our carcass scanning results and criteria of acceptable lambs to the ASI’s Roadmap Implementation grade determination (carcass weight, fat, cover, grade, muscling, etc.) for value based lamb pricing to see if we have produced lambs with the characteristics that have value to the consumer. Each farm will also select three lambs for sampling which will be evaluated by chefs to also verify findings.
The outcome will be to develop a procedure to measure high quality lambs, reducing excess fat and inconsistent quality. Producers with poor quality lambs will be encouraged to improve and those lambs will not be sold through the co-op.
The success of the project will be the use of the scanning based criteria to reduce the slaughter rate on non-conforming animals for the co-op, using the selective breeding tool to market quality lamb, and establishing the co-op as a quality source.
For this project, resource CDs (handbooks for the Amish), a co-op webpage with links to social media sites, slide programs, and a video will be made available. In addition, the co-op will have exhibitor space at Ohio Sheep Day, the Buckeye Shepherds symposium, the American Sheep Industry conference, and the Ohio Ecological Food and Farming Association conference.
The expected outcome will be successful distribution of even sheep, more breeders using scanning in the NSIP program, greater ease in collecting and analyzing data for producers, and the affordable use of technology.