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Growing US Ethnic Market for Lamb and Goat

07 April 2016

The demand for lamb and goat meat is on the rise in the US within the Ethnic market. Kids and goat of all ages in addition to lightweight lean lamb fetch premium rates. For producers interested in this market sector a shift in practice and marketing strategy may need to be considered, writes John Wilkes.

Tim Baumert, Sheep and Goat Barn Manager, New Holland Auctions, Pennsylvania shared a recent conversation with a vendor grappling with this reality. The rancher opined: “I’m selling 63kg lambs for the same dollar amount as others with 45kg lambs.” Mr Baumert explained buyers for the Ethnic market require lighter weight, lean lambs for which they pay a premium.

New Holland is the biggest auction yard in Eastern US, selling 80,000 goats and 117,462 sheep/lambs annually. A large percentage is sold to the Ethnic market. In September 2015 more than 6,500 goats and 9,838 sheep/lambs were sold prior to the Muslim Eid al-Fitr festival.

The high demand has a knock-on effect for feeder lambs, Mr Baumert added: “Premium prices are paid for 60-100 lb potential feeder lambs going straight to Ethnic slaughter. This impacts lamb feeders forced to compete for animals previously destined for feed lots.” Long term this could impact the viability of feeders’ businesses, tightening supplies for the packers later on in the season.

At Producers Livestock Company in San Angelo, Texas the situation is the same. Sales Manager Benny Cox acknowledged the importance of this non-traditional market segment.

He commented: ”San Angelo is now a 100 per cent Ethnic driven market and we’re the largest sheep/goat auction in the nation.” Last year nearly 300,000 sheep and goats passed through the ring and a further 15,000 head sold via private treaty.

Benny Cox, Sales Manager at Producers Livestock Auction in Texas.

Sales inventory fluctuates weekly. One week in March 2016 noted 2,918 sheep and 1,712 goats sold. Seasonally and based upon availability, the percentage also varies for sales of cull animals older than 12 months of age.

In Springfield, Viriginia, American Halal Meat sources the majority of its goat meat from Texas. Its owner, Dr Omar Wali has experienced exponential yearly growth for the Halal goat, lamb and other meats they supply wholesale to customers in Virginia and Maryland. Dr Wali said: “When we started here seven years ago we supplied six stores; now we supply 200 and many restaurants.”

Dr Wali qualified as a veterinarian in Egypt before working internationally for Comibassal, an inspection company scrutinising Halal slaughter procedures for beef exported to the Middle East. His work took him to South America and Ireland before moving to the US in 1985 to open an office for the Comibassal.

Recognising limited sources in the marketplace, in 1989 Dr Wali made a decision to open his own facility supplying fresh Halal meat. Initially, he killed animals himself until the business expanded affording hired slaughterers.

Dr Omar Wali, owner of American Halal Meat.

Over time the business became exclusively wholesale, Dr Wali commented: “There are now three slaughterhouses in this area. It’s easier for us to leave all the sourcing and slaughter to others and concentrate on the wholesale side.”

The key to American Halal’s success has been the quality of meat and its freshness. Dr Wali said: “Animals are turned around quickly, sometimes within 24 hours from slaughter at Hamzah Slaughter in Williamsport, Maryland to us here that same day followed by delivery to our customers the next morning.”

The ideal hanging carcass weight for lamb and baby goat is between 11-16kg. For American Halal’s lamb customer the emphasis is not fixated on loin and rib per traditional mainstream American preference. Dr Wali added: “No one is bothered about just the rack, it’s about enjoying the whole lamb for my customers.”

Goat makes up a large part of the company’s inventory. Such is demand, US reared animals cannot wholly meet this need. Dr Wali said: “Some 85 per cent of our supplier’s goat comes from Mexico via the auction in Texas and other livestock buyers there.”

Though frozen Halal product is available from Australia and New Zealand at a lower cost, Dr Wali explained that this is not a competitive threat: ”Our Arabic, Indian and Pakistani customers will pay the £4.00kg wholesale premium for fresh meat - they prefer the taste. The frozen import mostly goes to the restaurant trade where profit is often an issue.”

Currently, whole 16kg New Zealand Halal lamb is readily available from Costco - the nationwide US discount chain - for £5.52kg.

Frozen halal lamb is available on US markets, but many consumers prefer the taste of fresh meat

In Minnesota, livestock buyer Wayne Clarke from Albert Lea has supplied lamb and goat for more than 35 years. In the past two years demand from Minneapolis’s 30,000 Somali community has soared.

Annually Clarke’s supplies 70,000 lambs in the 34kg carcass range to Wolverine Packing Company in Detroit for the Kosher trade, but more recently Halal has taken off: “I’ve gone from one wholesale customer a month to four a week.”

Demand for goat is insatiable, Mr Clarke commented: ”Goat meat in particular has gone crazy. Billy goats are at a substantial premium. Recently I supplied 14 Billy's at £250 each.”

He continued: ”Billy’s fetch more per pound than any other form of commercial livestock in the US.”

Mr Clarke has upwards of 300 kid goats feeding year round: “When they get between 22-30kg live weight they go to slaughter and are replaced.”

Sheer numbers of sheep and goats requiring slaughter at peak times around religious festivals means that some of Clarke’s customers may use up to five small slaughter plants or ‘lockers’ for their purchased inventory.

At these ‘locker’ plants customer kill is popular; no USDA monitoring or recordation is needed. One may choose the animal at the ‘locker’, purchase it, have it slaughtered and take it home shortly afterward. Many of these small specialist custom shops kill fewer than 80 head a week.

By its very nature the Ethnic sheep/lamb and goat trade challenge the conventional American Livestock Producer. The scale and abundant growth in the Ethnic market cannot be ignored.

Tailoring carcass size, finish and suitable breeds of livestock may require a change in mindset, but reward from this burgeoning market sector can be substantial. Wayne Clarke concluded: ”I’ve never been busier.”

Freshly slaughtered kid goats at Dr Wali's facility in Springfield, Virginia.

John Wilkes

John Wilkes
Freelance journalist

John Wilkes is a former UK Sheep producer now living in Washington DC. His experience in both the UK and USA gives him a unique perspective on livestock and food production.

Nowadays he writes and consults about livestock and agriculture. He also hosts a broadcast radio program called The Whole Shebang on Heritage Radio Network from Brooklyn, New York.

John is a board member of The Livestock Conservancy in the U.S. and a member of The American Sheep Industry Association.