Fat back on the lamb and back on the table

Fat is back in fashion on the farm and a special lamb project is producing succulent meat that has diners drooling, reports Tony Benny.

Caberfeidh manager Andrew Harding, left, with fattening manager Jason Sutherland.
Tony Benny

Caberfeidh manager Andrew Harding, left, with fattening manager Jason Sutherland.

For years we've been hearing about how bad fat is for us and, with this message ringing in their ears, sheep breeders have strived to select animals with lean traits to try to give the market what it wanted. But now it seems that might not have been what's best for the animals or the consumer.

"We've all been pretty frustrated by how lean sheep had got, both constitutionally and eating, so it's all about putting fat back in the system," says Andrew Harding, manager of Caberfeidh, a 6000ha property in Hakataramea Valley, South Canterbury, that last year finished 22,000 lambs. 

Caberfeidh is owned by Lone Star Farms, which in turn is owned by Nelson-based American Tom Sturgess.  Lone Star also has four other large farms in the South Island and one in the North Island.

Headwaters ewes and lambs graze chicory with red and white clover on Caberfeidh.
Tony Benny

Headwaters ewes and lambs graze chicory with red and white clover on Caberfeidh.

"Tom sees farming as a cornerstone of his investment, he's incredibly positive about the sheep and beef industry," Harding says of his boss. 

Caberfeidh was created by putting together nine farms into one unit and since he came in as manager nearly seven years ago, Harding has overseen major redevelopment, including planting 500ha of lucerne in his first year.

A couple of the eight woolsheds have been demolished and others extended, laneways have been put in along with many kilometres of fencing and $800,000 has been spent on a reticulated stock water system so that the farm now has a 750 litre trough for every 5-10 hectares.

Four hundred hectares is irrigated, using water captured from streams on the property.

Hakataramea has a climate of extremes with freezing winters and hot, often very dry, summers.   It's not a climate that suits ryegrass pasture.

"It's a weed on this farm," Harding says. "It just doesn't grow in summer because we have well over 22 degrees soil temperatures here for two or three months on average so water just makes it go green, it's not growing so what's the point of paying for this water.

"I think five years ago would be the last time I planted ryegrass.  When I came here there were only 120ha of lucerne and about 50ha of mixes, now there's 900ha of lucerne and 2000ha of lucerne mixes."

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Harding says production has risen 40 to 50 per cent thanks to the change from a ryegrass to a lucerne-based system.  Now production is set to go up again with the planting of large areas of chicory pasture – there's already 60ha and another 100ha will be sown this year.

The chicory has been sown as part of the Omega Lamb project, a Primary Growth Partnership collaboration between Alliance Group, Headwaters Group and the Ministry for Primary Industries, the goal of which is produce the world's tastiest and healthiest lamb.

"We've all been scared of fat over the last decade or more, probably for reasons that have turned out to be a little spurious," says project manager Mike Tate. "But if you refocus your thinking around the 'fat in the system' and putting healthy fats back into animals which some would argue have got a bit lean, you basically find all these benefits.

"By putting healthy fats back into the ewe on the hill country, she's better able to face the challenges of the environment and raise her lambs. We're managing forages that really promote putting on intra-muscular fat in the lambs, that creates a great taste, but equally focussing on the good fats like omega 3 where we're delivering what we believe is the healthiest red meat in the world."

Headwaters Group has bred a composite animal which has romney, finn, texel and perendale genetics, selected to have more fat than has become the fashion, to make ewes better able to withstand hill country conditions.

The work is lead by geneticist Aimee Charteris. "I went through a process of what I knew and what I'd experienced to date through science and observation and using a bit of common sense and a bit of biology, I re-thought the whole process and where I landed was fat," she says.

"If you don't have fat you simply can't function and particularly when you see where sheep production is right now, heading into the higher hill country. Fat's vital for ewes to be able to survive up there and perform under really arduous conditions.

"I was looking at that from a ewe perspective and asking what is the relationship between fat in the carcass and fat in the ewe and I had to make sure it was a win for the ewe and a win for the lamb -- and for the lamb, not only through it's growth phase but also once it reaches the customer."

Nearly 450 different family lines were looked at for their fat composition and from that the right genetics drawn.  Those family lines have been followed and measured through to slaughter and on to taste-testing and that's where some of the most exciting results have come from.

"Everyone who tastes it loves it.  It's something you've never tasted before – it's just bloody good, you just want to eat more of it," says Caberfeidh finishing manager Jason Sutherland.

By combining the right genetics with the right feed – on Caberfeidh it's a chicory and red and white clover mix - the lambs not only grow fast, their meat tastes great.

"The diet nutritionally conditions the meat," says Charteris.  "That assists with good pH in the meat and also makes sure the animal is growing and in my opinion has a robust immune system so it's got great energy flowing through its body the entire time.

"Consequently, it's not only really good when it lands on the plate, it's fundamentally incredibly good for the animal while it's in the production system."

"We looked at a whole range of different feeds and what we've settled on is chicory based mixtures," adds Tate.  "They seem to really accentuate the features that we're looking for in the genetics – a higher propensity to put on intra-muscular fat, a good fatty acid profile with a lot less saturated fat and a more poly-unsaturated and omega 3 that ends up in the meat.

"The flavour difference is one of the things that's blown us away.  We were more focussed on the health aspects of the fatty acid profile but to some extent the eating quality benefits have been a real bonus on top of that.  When you get a product with a significantly changed fatty acid profile, it has a different mouth feel and a different taste which chefs seem to love."

Jason Sutherland is in his second year of growing chicory on Caberfeidh and he's still learning how to get the best out of it.

"I thought I got the first-year stuff under control, it was beautiful, just like a lettuce I suppose, but then the second year is a whole different ball game because it's always seeding," he says.

"It's now putting up a great big seed head in the middle and apparently you can't let that get too high, you've got to whack it off.  It does that two times and apparently you don't worry about that, you just eat the good stuff off round the bottom.  It's a big learning curve."

Caberfeidh is one of the Omega project's pilot farms and it's already clear that the lambs thrive on chicory and they're helping increase production.

"Since we've been doing it, we've increased our production twofold in some respects," Harding says. "We've gone from 100 to 135 per cent lambing three years ago to 156 per cent last year.  Some of it's management, but you can be the best manager you can but if you haven't got the right genetics behind you, you won't get there."

Every part of the lambs' lifecycle is recorded, from tailing to slaughter, and staff on Caberfeidh use their smart phones to record other farm activity too, like when sheep are shifted.

"As you put them through the gate you put it into phone.  We do covers in and out as we're going, too.  It might be 1800 so you type that in, the next paddock might be 2000 so we'll whack that in there," Sutherland says.

"We're still getting the knack of it. It's probably a wee bit time-consuming at the moment but as they make a few tweaks it'll be easier.  For tracking stock and tracking tallies it's definitely a lot easier."

Data about every animal and every paddock can then be combined with kill data from Alliance's meat plants, information that can be used to keep improving the Omega system. 

"Some of the technologies we're trying are relatively new in this field, some of them are pre-existing but haven't been deployed in an integrated fashion, so when you bring the total picture together it unlocks opportunities," says Alliance group head of strategy Nigel Jones.

"The technology is used in measuring product, the traceability of product and being able to look at how we get very detailed feedback back to the farmer at an animal level, once the animal has been processed."

Work is now concentrated on getting on-farm systems streamlined and getting the economics right, with the aim being to produce better lamb with the right fatty acid profile at a lower cost than traditional grass-fed.

"The project is at the stage of proving that we can get the economic returns from the market and proving that we can produce this differentiated lamb on reasonable scale," says Tate, who adds that it will probably take up to two years to demonstrate the system works commercially across the whole value chain.

"It's at a very exciting stage and all the feedback we're getting from the market is good and the farm economics look OK, but as with everything, there's a difference between a plan and actually doing it, so that's our challenge for the next couple of years."

Alliance is now working on a go-to-market strategy for the Omega lamb and the meat is being trialled in the food service sector in New Zealand and overseas, to help assess whether it can stand as a differentiated product in the market.

"We have to make sure we get our go-to-market strategy right. It's early days but I think we will be driving to look for premium prices for the product," says Jones.

 - Stuff

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