Lamb weights continue to climb

14 March 2018

Lamb slaughter weights continued to push higher at the commencement of 2018, setting a new January record of 22.9kg (MLA calculations using ABS data).

  • Genetics and feeding regimes have seen lamb carcase weights lift 30% between 1990 and 2017, accounting for an additional 118,000 tonnes carcase weight (cwt) of production.
  • The supply of trade weight lambs (18–22kg cwt) continues to come under pressure, squeezed by growth at heavy end and light carcase trade to the Middle East.
  • Additional weight means additional fat and ever increasing cut sizes, presenting challenges for processors, retailers and exporters.

Australian weights ahead of the pack

The growth in lamb carcase weights in Australia has been a consistent trend, particularly since the flock began transitioning away from a wool focus nearly three decades ago. Australia is not alone in the shift to heavier weights however it is at the heavy end of the global industry and almost 4kg above the New Zealand average.

Aust and NZ lamb carcase weights

As highlighted in the recently released global agri benchmark network results, Australia produces among the heaviest lambs in the world (it is behind the US industry but they were not included in the study) reflecting on farm productivity improvements but also the challenge of selling heavy lambs to a global market conditioned to lighter, leaner ones.

While the additional weight per lamb has allowed the industry to produce more from less – 118,000 tonnes cwt, in fact, since 1990 or 23% of current production – it is slightly overstated as production volumes also include an increasing proportion of fat. 

Trade weights squeezed

Analysing saleyard data from MLA’s NLRS*, a more detailed picture of the shift in carcase weight distribution can be drawn. In 2017, 34% of saleyard lambs were between 18–22kg cwt, down from 51% in 2000. In comparison, saleyard lambs over 22kg cwt have increased from 18% to 48% of throughput over the same period.

Lamb carcase weight distribution

Weights forecast to continue growth

As highlighted in MLA’s January sheep industry projections, lamb carcase weights are forecast to continue on their growth path; after averaging 22.7kg in 2017, weights are forecast to average 22.9kg in 2018, before reaching 23.3kg by 2022.

Presented with ever-increasing weights, the challenge for industry is finding markets for the heavier end of the distribution, dealing with additional fat coming down the supply chain and innovating to cuts to control portion sizes.

*In 2017, MLA’s NLRS recorded 7.5 million head of slaughter lamb transactions through saleyards. This is a significant sample size for the entire kill but saleyard carcase weights are based off a visual assessment and there may be natural skews in the pathway.

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