A leading lamb seedstock producer has broken away from tradition to breed sheep for marbling in the Eastern States.
And, with plenty of grain and well-performing sheep in WA, Lambpro general manager Tom Bull, Holbrook, New South Wales, believes there is opportunity for producers in the west to do the same.
Mr Bull spoke about how he used marbling in sheep to produce a top-shelf product at the WAMMCO annual general meeting last week.
About six years ago, Mr Bull started benchmarking genetics through blind consumer tastings at the University of New England, Armidale, New South Wales.
It was then that he discovered the Hampshire Down breed was rated best by consumers because of its superior marbling, or intramuscular fat (IMF) score which is a key driver of eating quality in sheepmeat.
IMF is the distribution of fat within muscle, in lamb carcases measurements are currently taken from the loin and expressed as a percentage.
Despite being measured in the loin, IMF has a positive impact on eating across all cuts in the carcase and contributes to all factors of eating quality including flavour and overall liking.
According to Meat & Livestock Australia, it can be influenced by genetics and management, such as nutrition leading up to slaughter.
Mr Bull started consumer tastings in different breeds, with participants from the likes of football clubs and universities, so he could "up the dial" in the genetics game.
He said the tastings refined his understanding of the link between genetics and consumer liking.
"One of the first things we found was that a small group of Hampshire Down sheep were really good for IMF - they were so far out of the realms," Mr Bull said.
"We tried to take the highest genetics we could and run them through a beef system.
"Now our Kinross station supplies to the likes of China, Singapore, Dubai, the Maldives, Philippines, Malaysia and Hong Kong - and our racks are still almost $50 per kilogram."
Lambpro's Kinross station Hampshire Down breeding program is ranked objectively through MLA's LAMBPLAN program.
The station has been recognised as an industry leader for marbling and tenderness and uses two finishing systems for its Hampshire Down lambs.
These systems included Kinross Station Hampshire Down, with a marble score of 2-4 sired by Kinross station Hampshire Down rams out of Primeline maternal breeding ewes and Kinross Station Heritage with a marble score of 3-5 sired by elite Kinross station Hampshire Down rams out of specially selected Primeline maternal breeding ewes.
One of Lambpro's success stories in breeding high-end sheep is its Willow Bend brand project.
Through the project clients supply to Catelli Brothers Family of Foods, New York, using 100pc Lambpro genetics.
Mr Bull said Catelli Brothers looked to increase imports to 5000-head per week next year.
He said this would see Lambpro accounting for 300,000 lambs annually into these supply chains.
"Our high end prices have held up really well," Mr Bull said.
"Catelli Brothers came to us because we are consistent in our product - we marble score every lamb and have started to reward producers who get it right.
"I have no doubt brands, which can guarantee eating quality, will grow over time."
Since changing his business model, Mr Bull has seen optimism in producers, which was reflective in the fact they had increased their flock sizes.
He said more young people had also entered the industry because they could see a defined career path.
"I look at the world and the lamb industry and go, what are the opportunities? What's the competition?" Mr Bull asked.
"I'll tell you what - there's a lot more grain, pork and beef competition compared to lamb.
"If we want to keep people in the sheep industry we have to create value."
Mr Bull's advice to WA prime lamb producers, who might consider breeding for marbling, was simple - use data.
He said marbling could be selected by using Australian Sheep Breeding Values (ASBVs) like any other trait.
However, collection of carcase data was expensive and complex.
"Something I've learned is that sheep breeds are irrelevant," Mr Bull said.
"It is all about accurate carcase data."
He added, "we provide producers with feedback on their lamb and look at what factors are impacting performance".
"The number one thing to marbling is growth rate - if lambs don't grow, they don't marble.
"If producers want lamb to marble, they need growth rates of 400-500 grams per day."
Mr Bull acknowledged the sheep industry had gone from the 'penthouse' to the 'outhouse' in 12 months.
However, he believed WAMMCO had more strengths than anyone in the meat processing sector because it was "the same beast" - as opposed to producer-processor.
"I do not see any impediment to growing the industry," Mr Bull said.
"Tradition is the biggest opportunity and there are certainly opportunities in the sheepmeat industry that I have never seen before - it is exciting.
"Those opportunities include getting traditional non-lamb eaters across the globe to eat more lamb.
"We just need to hit (industry) issues with an entrepreneurial flavour to it."
WAMMCO chief executive officer Coll MacRury said Mr Bull was invited to attend the annual general meeting to offer another perspective on the lamb business from the Eastern States.
Mr MacRury said Mr Bull's company offered breeding and marketing opportunities around high IMF lamb.
"It was really just to allow our shareholders to see what else is going on in the industry," Mr MacRury said.
"To produce these lambs takes years of genetic changes to your flock."
Sign up for our newsletter to stay up to date.