Fat lamb proof is in the pudding
A Hawke's Bay geneticist is at the fat end of a quiet revolution on Kiwi farms aimed at producing the world's tastiest and healthiest lambs. Rob Tipa reports.
A whole generation of Kiwi sheep farmers has grown up with the mantra that fat is bad, so bad that even mentioning "fat lamb" in civilised company was vigorously discouraged by industry leaders.
For decades farmers have been selectively breeding for leaner and leaner lambs on the assumption that that was what consumers on world markets wanted in their quest for a healthier lifestyle.
Paradoxically, scientists and dieticians have changed their thinking in recent years, claiming that some fat is crucial for the survival of animal species, enhances the taste of meat products and unsaturated fats are actually good for human health as well.
Geneticist Aimee Charteris grew up on her parent's remote hill country sheep station west of Gisborne, so she has a practical view of farming from both sides of the fence.
She built on her practical skills with a double degree from Massey University, the first in animal science before specialising with an honours degree in animal breeding and genetics.
During her university studies she also worked on the chain in the meat industry for another dimension of the industry.
After graduating, she worked for Rissington Breedline in Hawke's Bay for three years, which gave her a great grounding in stock breeding during an exciting phase of development for New Zealand agriculture.
One of the highlights of her work there was an ovine progeny test, the first of its kind involving the integration of sheep breeding, electronic identification of animals and progeny testing on a large-scale commercial level.
Working alongside the principals at Rissington, Charteris built breeding programmes from scratch, "so I got to put a lot of what I'd learnt about design and breeding programmes into place, finding out what worked and what didn't work," she says.
One of the key lessons she learnt from that period was that chasing increased yields was a finite goal. The question in the back of her mind for the next three or four years was: Where to next?
"Looking back I feel as though we have chased the yield dream for long enough and now it's about finding other points of difference," she told the NZ Farmer.
She looked at a number of meat quality traits - including meat colour, tenderness and pH levels - but ultimately breeding for these traits had to produce a commercial value for farmers.
One of the important changes was people's growing awareness of healthy eating and that put the focus on producing lambs with less of the bad saturated fats and more of the healthy polyunsaturated fats and Omega 3 oils.
"So it came down to what the customer is looking for and what are they prepared to pay for," Charteris says.
"Probably one of the most important things for me is that science needs to have commercial value attached to it, keeping it really objective and making sure that it is going to return something for its investors," she says.
With her rare set of practical skills in farming and genetics, Charteris saw an opening to set up her own business as a geneticist working from her base in Napier.
In 2006 she worked with Andy Ramsden of the Headwaters Group, a specialist animal breeding company, to design a breeding programme to develop healthier and tastier lambs. By 2010 the group mated their first lot of progeny tested rams and killed their first crop of lambs in 2011.
Data collected from that platform is now the basis of further development by the Omega Lamb Programme, a primary growth partnership between the Ministry for Primary Industries, the Alliance Group and Headwaters NZ.
"It allowed us to figure out how to fit the whole jigsaw puzzle together," Charteris says.
She is contracted to run the sheep breeding programme for Headwaters NZ, which supplies the Omega programme with rams with suitable genetic traits to produce tastier, healthier lambs.
The Omega project is in the second year of a seven-year programme to develop premium lamb products with better health qualities, including less saturated fat and higher levels of polyunsaturated fat and healthy Omega 3 oils.
The Headwaters group has about 60 farmer shareholders spread throughout New Zealand, from Charteris's own family's Hillview Station west of Gisborne, a handful of farmers in the lower North Island and the rest spread between Amberley and Southland.
Those farms range in size from family properties running 2000 ewes to Barewood Station, one of the Lone Star Farms group, which runs 16,000 ewes on a rocky plateau near Middlemarch.
Eleven of the Headwaters shareholders, including Barewood Station, form the basis of a pilot project under the Omega Lamb Programme.
Charteris, the on-farm development manager for the Omega project, says there are some very logical reasons for breeding stock to store fat, which makes them biologically fit for purpose to survive in challenging environments.
"I could never get my head around why we were selecting against fat," she says.
"It's absolutely critical for a species' existence wherever you look, so taking it out made no biological sense.
"One of the things I'm very passionate about is making sure that we get it right for the animal as well as getting it right for the customer, and in this case getting it right for human health," she says.
In her breeding work with Rissington Breedline, she stopped selecting against fat in 2005 when it was common for breeding programmes to impose negative penalties against fat. The Headwater group has never selected against fat.
"I guess my fascination with fat began at that point," she says. "We looked at it right through the discovery phase and wherever we looked, it just had great synergies.'
"There were positive relationships between traits regardless of where you looked, so improving lamb output or improving weight of lamb output, all of these things match up really well with selecting for better body condition score in ewes.
"So if we select for better body condition score in ewes we also make sure that we maintain optimum levels in the carcass of lambs and we get these great maternal outputs so the whole jigsaw puzzle comes together."
Body condition of ewes is closely connected with lamb survival, colostrum production, lamb vigour and a lift in the kilograms of lamb liveweights, all of which Charteris says are promising signs for the project's breeding programme in future.
"We'll bundle all the fat traits together and make sure we have got that in the right form to make sure where ewes need to end up," she says.
"The proof is in the pudding and the easiest way to convince people is to get robust data and put the scientific results in front of them," she says. "We all know if a product doesn't taste great, no-one's going to buy it."
And Charteris says Omega lamb "tastes amazing", her opinion reinforced by a team of Kiwi chefs who won a silver medal for an Omega lamb dish billed as the world's tastiest and healthiest lamb at the International Culinary Olympics in Germany last month.
The Omega project's processing partner the Alliance Group has invested heavily in new technology, adding valuable information on new traits from progeny testing to the information they already gather through their Viascan technology.
The first crop of 15,000 Omega lambs, all of which was processed by the Alliance Group, is about to be released on international markets. This season the project is aiming to produce 25,000 lambs and next season it has set a target of 60,000 lambs.
Charteris says it is still too early to gauge how the product has been received and its likely value on world markets, and the partners expect to have a better understanding of these factors in six to eight months time.
She believes world markets for lamb meat are likely to become incredibly competitive, especially with the prospect of synthetic meats on the horizon.
New Zealand needs to raise the bar, she says, and build on its reputation for producing a natural product with a tangible point of difference customers are willing to pay premium prices for.
She sees the Omega Lamb Programme as an exciting opportunity for the sheep industry and a fine example of the innovative and open-minded approach of farmers involved in the programme.
"The fact that they are prepared to think outside the square and do something different is not always easy," she says. "The group of farmers we are working with are fantastic.
"We are revolutionising the whole supply chain and we are doing things very, very differently at every single level. Developments in breeding are a global first and on-farm we are integrating systems using electronic technology, but automating it and making sure systems are efficient and effective is the key.
"We are literally looking at the entire supply chain and seeing how we can do things differently for an entirely different result."
"Where I see value is in creating a very innovative example of what can be done with the right science, the right practice and the right partners.
"I think it's the way of the future."