Sheep markets continue upwards into 2021

Image Credit: Sinéad Mohan

This January has brought one of the strongest starts to the sheep sector in years. 2021 looks to be the best year for sheep in memory, with Spring lamb prices upward of €6.20/kg up to 23kg, seeing record prices for hoggets hitting €163 per head at marts. Hannah Woods reports.

The final months of 2020 saw a steady price increase for lambs due to a scarce supply coming into the factories. There were weekly increases of 10-20c/kg with most factories adding an additional 10-15c/kg quality assurance bonus for farmers within the scheme with high production standards for their sheep. Overall, 2020 saw the average price at €5.24/kg.

The market for ewe lambs is also being pushed towards farmers with the shortage of grass and the reluctancy to feed bulk concentrates to their flock, driven on by the factories desire for lambs, all the while holding strong prices and having a prosperous and ever-growing mart trade. The resurgence of the butcher trade has also boosted net profit to the domestic market which will undoubtedly augment the volume of sheep at production level, especially with the mild weather reducing mortality rates at lambing.

This is very necessary as while demand continued to rise towards the end of last year, farmers could not keep up with the throughput. However, with ongoing market prices increasing it gives farmers a reassuring encouragement to put forward a higher number of ewe lambs in 2021. This gives farmers the extra nod of approval when it comes to input at finishing, with farmers investing more in ad-lib concentrates in combination with high-quality forages meanwhile giving farmers the incentive to finish indoors generating a relatively high-performance outcome, guaranteeing that price premium at the factory.

Sean McNamara of the Irish Cattle and Sheep farmers association urges farmers to still negotiate with factories on prices with reports of top prices reaching €6.50- €6.60/kg being secured. With farmers putting in the extra inputs for getting lambs ready for the factory, farmers are urged to hold strong and ensure the price received has made their efforts worthwhile.

The resurgence of the butcher trade has also boosted net profit to the domestic market which will undoubtedly augment the volume of sheep at production level

On a wider scale the market is really opening up for Irish lamb. With the UK withdrawn from the European union the volume of sheep meat exported from the UK to the EU market is expected to reduce significantly due to the increased cost of doing business with them, from transport costs to increased paperwork. With the volume and value of sheep meat exports increasing last year from our own shores it is favourable to presume that this year will undoubtedly see an increase due to our market value versus the United Kingdom, allowing Irish farmers to capitalise on this opportunity.

Globally, the Irish sheep meat market is untapped. The Chinese and US markets provide a greater and more diverse outlet for Irish processors. This is especially in terms of expanding our consumer base and by internationally spreading the good name of Irish agriculture and the Irish sheep industry. However, with New Zealand being the leading supplier of sheep meat to China, it could be a difficult task to tap into the market. With that said, Ireland now has a clear and mutually beneficial relationship with China.

Ireland can not only attempt to advance into these Chinese markets to promote Irish lamb, but to continue also to focus attention on the nearer European markets and the near guarantee for Irish farmers to profit

This can be made clear through the success of beef exports and with further expansion said to be on the cards, according to the Chinese Ambassador to Ireland He Xiangdong, which looks to broaden our market prospects in China. This would be a step in the right direction for Irish sheep meat with the majority of Chinese lamb imports being those of low value frozen lamb. Processors can not only have a market for a product seen as ‘unprofitable’ in the margins it leaves behind in Ireland, but also introduce Chinese consumers to the niche and vibrant product that is Irish lamb.

It now stands to Irish sheep farmers to put a newfound trust into factories and marts offering this price premium for their produce. With the markets now opening up, and the continuing desire of factories for our lambs we can only look towards a constantly rising price in the future. With the ongoing demand for sheep seeing no end, it is now in the hands of farmers to take this opportunity given to them and make a profit while they can.