by Sally Colby

Sheep producers work in a highly seasonal industry, but may not consider the implications. While most lambs in the U.S. are born between January and March, there’s a need for a consistent supply of domestic lamb throughout the year.

Dr. Reid Redden, sheep and goat specialist at Texas A&M AgriLife Extension, says he thought he understood the issues pertaining to the seasonality of lamb production, but gained a deeper understanding during in-depth study of the topic.

Redden worked on a white paper commissioned by the U.S. Lamb Industry Roundtable, which includes industry leaders who represent various segments of the lamb industry. The committee used the Sheep Industry Roadmap that was developed as a guide for industry progress. The group received support from the American Lamb Board.

Redden says the U.S. lamb industry is based on seasonal lambing, something most producers don’t even think about. “We just plan on lambing at a certain time of the year because that’s the way it’s always been done,” he said. “Sheep are short-day breeders, which means as the days are getting shorter, they become more fertile, and more lambs are born in spring.”

This works out well for most producers because more feed resources are available in spring. Spring-born lambs have a better chance of survival because the ewe’s nutritional needs are met, and typically don’t have to endure harsh weather conditions.

“A large segment of lambs are born in the first five months of the year,” said Redden, adding that about 85 percent of lambs are born during those months. “That means a large number of lambs are going to be sold as feeders, and those feeders are all going to end up at the harvest level within the same time frame and will oversupply the infrastructure.” While closing packing houses during the time lambs aren’t coming to harvest seems like a reasonable solution, packers need to ensure employees have jobs year round, and they need to supply consistent, fresh lamb to the domestic consumer.

But Redden says the issue is more complicated because there are two different supplies of lambs, one of which is the traditional supply of heavier lambs going to harvest at a live weight of 145 pounds. “Those lambs are born, weaned at 90 to 120 days and go to a feeding facility until they reach their final weight,” he said. “Most range lambs take a year to get there. However, farm flock animals grow faster, have a higher feed resource supply and typically come to market sooner.” The other supply is light lambs, the non-traditional supply of lambs that come to market at 65 to 80 pounds. The majority of these lambs go to market in summer.

After lambs for the traditional lamb consumer are fed to a certain weight and processed, the consumer gets them at the retail or restaurant level. “Non-traditional lamb consumers are very diverse,” said Redden. “They don’t follow that same channel. Most non-traditional lamb consumers are recent immigrants to the U.S. from less developed countries, typically of the Muslim faith, and sheep and goat meat are a common protein source in the diet.” Redden says lamb and goat consumption rises around religious events, primarily during Eid al-Fitr, a two-day festival at the end of Ramadan, and Eid al Ahda, a sacrifice feast.

Redden explains that these holidays are based on the Islamic calendar and move up 10 days to two weeks every year. “Right now, this religious event fits nicely with the non-traditional lamb supply because we supply a lot of light lambs in summer,” he said. “If you roll the clock back when this market was in fall or winter when there’s a short supply of light lambs, these religious holidays had a bigger impact.” Lambs sold directly to consumers are another group that don’t go through the typical chain — they’re processed locally and sold at farmers’ markets or local direct marketing.

In the traditional industry, from January through March, the typical lamb carcass weight is 71 to 73 pounds. “As we move through spring, more lambs are coming into feedlots and we can’t keep up with harvest, so carcass weights go up,” said Redden. “By May-June, carcass weights slide down through October, then go up again.”

This pattern of large carcasses being available for a few months then gone creates a challenge for packers. There’s also a strong effect throughout the year on the price of traditional slaughter lambs. “When large lambs go into feedlots, feedlots are full and there are lots of lambs to go to harvest at same time,” Redden explained. “We have an oversupply and the market drops through May-June. Those old crop lambs are worked through, then the market picks up, we have a harder time finding new crop lambs, we have highs in the market in July, August and September, then that market comes back down in fall.”

Domestic lamb production isn’t the only factor in fluctuating markets and prices. Imported lamb marketed to the American consumer has an impact on price throughout the year. Redden says he hears ‘we need imported lamb to make up for the seasons we don’t produce lamb’. “They’re on the other side of the equator,” he said. “We’re lambing in spring and they’re lambing in spring, but their spring is our fall.”

Redden says that makes sense at first, but in looking at the monthly average of imported lamb, there’s a peak in March and a low in September. “Most of the imported lamb is competing with our traditional lamb industry,” he said. “Our weakest point in supply is July through September, which coincides with the lowest volume of imported lamb. Imported lamb isn’t really making up for the times when we don’t produce it — it’s actually fitting times when we have an increase in demand.”

The increased volume of imported lamb in March leads to increased April sales, most of which are for Easter. Another sales spike occurs just prior to Christmas. Sales of legs triple around Easter, then drop and hold steady through fall. For rib sections, which include rack and rib chops, the effect is similar but not as pronounced.

One obvious solution to fluctuating supply would be frozen products. However, most food service and retail customers are averse to purchasing frozen lamb. “It makes sense,” said Redden. “They get beef, pork and poultry fresh year-round, especially at meat counters where most lamb sales occur. If you’re going to buy a more expensive product, you’re typically going to buy it fresh.” However, those who direct market lamb have success selling frozen cuts. “Since they know who produced it, they have more confidence in that product than if they were going to a meat counter at a grocery store.”