International Panel Address Myriad Topics
March 31, 2005
By Ron Daines
March/April 2005 -- The sheep industry in Australia is making a comeback with the help of promotions. New Zealand's industry has gained renewed strength following government reforms. In Canada, the industry is struggling because of the border closure after BSE was found in a Canadian cow. Mexico wants formalized cooperation with U.S. and Canadian sheep industries. And all four countries laud the cooperation that has emerged among the countries in recent years.
Representatives from the respective countries offered American Sheep Industry Association (ASI) members updates and perspectives during the ASI annual convention in Reno.
"Sheep farmers in all countries face similar problems. Better understanding of issues and sharing of information are important ways we can all benefit," said Ian Corney, chairman of New Zealand Meat and Fibre Producers, an industry group of Federated Farmers of New Zealand, Inc.
Corney noted that agriculture contributes heavily to New Zealand's economy, providing one in eight jobs and comprising 17 percent of the gross domestic product in 2002-2003, up from 14 percent in 1990-2001. As a small economy, it depends heavily on exports, with 90 percent of its lamb exported to 95 countries.
In the mid 1980s, however, the sheep industry - then producing 34 million lambs from 70 million sheep - had become complacent, relying on 30 percent of its income from government subsidies.
"The heavy subsidies left producers with a lazy market approach," said Corney. "But the government removed the supports for farmers, and producers had to respond overnight, a difficult transition."
The government's wake-up call has worked. Today, said Corney, farmers make decisions based on sound information, not government handouts. The sheep industry has stabilized at 40 million head, and meat has become a "go-forward industry."
In Australia, said Ian Feldtman, president of the Sheepmeat Council of Australia, the sheep industry has recovered with a series of consumer promotions.
As production plummeted and producers suffered record losses, the Australia sheep industry launched the "Trim Lamb Campaign," a check-off-funded promotion. The industry trimmed the fat from cuts and gained health endorsements from organizations like the heart association.
The promotion arrested lamb's decline. Feldtman said nearly 90 percent of consumers were aware of lamb, one in three consumers bought it and, of those who bought lamb, 86 percent bought more.
In 1999, Australia launched a new campaign, "We Love Our Lamb." Essentially the promotion:
The results, said Feldtman, are impressive. Lamb servings in households are up 35 percent, consumer spending on lamb has rocketed and lamb producers are reaping the benefit with increased sale-yard and retail prices.
- targets mainstream families;
- promotes lamb as a year-round menu item;
- gives lamb a distinctive focus;
- uses integrated sales tools, including television ads; and
- tackles health issues head on, explaining the role of red meat in the Australian diet using science and support from the medical community to "win the hearts and minds of consumers."
The industry has learned the importance of presenting a modern product that is trimmed of fat and well packaged, and that it must leverage media opportunities to talk up lamb and the lamb industry.
"Lamb must be a proud purchase," said Feldtman.
Acknowledging the importance of country-to-country cooperation, he cited a positive global outlook for lamb, with growing demand in Asian and Western markets.
Andre Trepanier, a sheep producer near Montreal, Canada, and chair of the Canadian Sheep Federation, said that ewe and replacement lamb numbers had been growing until the border was closed in December 2003 after discovery of a BSE-infected cow. Still, he said, per capita in Canada consumption is increasing.
"Our flock may be decreasing but our consumers want more," said Trepanier.
To trace Canadian livestock movements, his country introduced in January 2004 the mandatory national Canadian Sheep Identification Program. All animals that leave a farm must wear approved tags, and producers are required to maintain complete records of the movement of sheep over 18 months of age and sheep that enter or leave a flock for breeding purposes.
The industry is also developing a voluntary on-farm food safety program in which producers will follow good production practices and maintain good production records, the focus on feeds and medications.
Trepanier said that live animal exports from Canada had been trending up from 1995 through 2002, and would have continued had the border not been closed. But U.S. producers, he said, should not worry if the border reopens.
"I think that even if the border reopens, with the reduction of the national ewe flock and a stronger Canadian dollar, don't expect a rush of lambs crossing the border," said Trepanier. "This, coupled with the U.S. reporting requirements, will not facilitate the movement of lambs into the United States."
Javier Lara-Pastor, DVM, farmer and secretary of the Mexican Sheep Producers Association, wanted U.S. producers to know more about the Mexican sheep industry, and he made an offer he hoped would improve relations.
Lara-Pastor proposed creation of the "North American Sheep Producers Association," with Canada, the United States and Mexico, focusing on trade, regulations and industry protection. The association, he said, would be formed by the lead sheep organizations in each country.
For Mexico's part, its industry is small but growing - 6.3 million head, 55 percent located in central Mexico and 23 percent in northern states, with 16 major breeds and hair sheep accounting for 45 percent of all sheep production.
In the last five years, said Lara-Pastor, meat production in Mexico has increased 32 percent, which has reduced imports to Mexico by 28 percent and live sheep imports by 80 percent between 2002 and 2004.