May 15, 2004
New Zealand Lamb Production: No Haggling, No Excuses
By Guy Flora, President, American Sheep Industry Association, Inc.,
May 2004 -- On my recent trip to New Zealand to attend their Federated Farmers meeting and the first meeting of their new lamb and wool promotion organization, Meat and Wool New Zealand, I was allowed to tour the lamb plant of Richmond at Takapau. As impressive as New Zealand sheep farms are, they pale in comparison to their harvest plants.
The plant at Takapau in Central Hawks Bay was constructed in 1981. It started with two chains and added a third in 1983. It was the first two-chain plant to process one million sheep and lambs in a season. With the addition of shift work, slaughtering capacity peaked in the 2002-2003 season at another record with 2,084,194 sheep and lambs killed.
Since no pictures were allowed I can only try to give you a physical description. The power plant for the processing plant and freezers produces the horsepower of a 747 jet. They use 1,000,000 gallons of water a day. It is recycled into two 1,000,000-gallon holding tanks and recycled with the additions from six deep wells.
The chains move at a rate of 10 carcasses a minute, and with multiple shifts, they have processed more than 14,000 lambs a day. Their subsidiary, Food Tech, houses and cuts 7,000 carcasses a day.
They can freezer store 4,000 tonnes of lamb. They lamb out 10-15 containers a day. I was in one chill room that held the entire day's production of 12,000 lambs. They now further process 80 percent of their production.
I saw pallet loads of lamb racks in SYSCO-labeled boxes for the American restaurant suppliers.
The lambs they use come from area farmers, who are paid on hot carcass weight. The lambs are shipped in by weight. They are crutched out by the farmers and 'shampooed' before stunning and killing. All killing is halal style so they can access the Muslim market if they wish.
Grading of the carcasses is done by a technician who inserts a marked gauge at the 12th rib to measure fat cover. This, plus weight and the tech's visual perception, yields the grade.
The Richmond plant truly believes that 'cleanliness' is next to godliness. Hands and boots are washed repeatedly as you move from department to department. You must change your whites as you move from slaughter to the food-processing department.
Many of the plant workers are local farmers and farm wives who work a second or third shift to pick up extra money. They are very proud of their product and spare no effort to make sure it is the best it can be.
The bulk of Richmond's production goes to Europe. I saw cuts wrapped with a label in English, French and German. New Zealand exports most of what it grows. Jim Sutton, their minister of agriculture, is also the minister of trade. He is a sheep farmer, and he believes in free trade. He sees the United States as a prime market for New Zealand lamb.
Are we ready to compete with New Zealand lamb in the market place? Their sheep farmers and lamb processors are ready. Their lambing percentage is now more than 123 percent nationally, and they have the plants to process them. We must expand our flocks, increase our lamb drop and convince our processors to modernize their businesses or we will lose to the little giant of the south. We must support a national program in the United States for American lamb promotion and marketing.
There is excellent communication between the meat works and their producers. The meat plant tells the producers what kind of lambs it wants and the producers supply them. There is no haggling and no excuses. As a producer you know exactly what to do to stay in business. In this system many producers own stock in the meat works and its success contributes to their livelihood.