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The Australian Sheep Meat Market: An Overview

How to evaluate the potential price of slaughter lambs

The first is the carcass weight. The carcass weight is the weight of the animal after it has been slaughtered with the head, skin & intestines removed.

The second is the value of the skin, which is used to make products such as sheepskin coats, ugg boots etc.

In Southern Australia most lambs sold for slaughter are sold through saleyards that hold weekly markets. In Victoria the largest selling centres are Ballarat and Bendigo while Wagga wagga is the largest in NSW. Unlike cattle selling markets, the lambs & sheep are NOT weighed. Instead buyers estimate the carcass weight & skin value of a pen of animals before making a bid in dollars per head for all of the animals in the pen.

Market reporters from the National Livestock Reporting Service, which is an independent body that reports on stock markets, collects theses prices and breaks them down intop average weight & skin values. This is the information that appears in lamb & sheep price tables in the rural press each week.

Most lamb producers use these tables as a guide to work out the value of their own stock. If you are considering selling Dorper or Dorper Cross lambs in the saleyard market remember that these lambs are a lot heavier than they look. An experienced livestock buyer will be fooled into understimating their weight unless he has had previous experience in actually seeing the animals being weighed. Perhaps it would be best to choose a market where the buyers have expereince in buying Dorper & Dorper Cross lambs.

When you sell stock at the saleyards you need to sell them through a livestock agent. Choose your agent carefully. You pay the agent for a service so you want your agent to do the best job possible for you (ie get the best price possible for your animals). In my experience the small local livestock companies provide a much better service than the bigger national companies. However it is probably best if you ask other local lamb producers for their recommendations. When you receive your statement of proceeds from the agent who sold your sheep on your behalf , you will notice that there will have been at least 3 deductions from the sale proceeds:

  1. a fee to the agent who sells your sheep (agent's fee)
  2. a fee to the saleyards where your sheep were sold (yard fee)
  3. a sheep or lamb levy (levy). This levy is collected by the federal government which matches the funds and forwards the total to Meat and Livestock Australia for research and promotional projects to further the interests of the sheepmeat industry in Australia.

You can choose to sell directly to an abbitoir or meat buyer and bypass the agent and the saleyards should you so wish. Some abbitoirs will buy directly from producers. You will need to contact the appropriate person at the abittoir (usually the buyer) and find out what the abbitoir will offer you for your sheep / lambs. Frequently the buyer will not give you a firm price without seeing the stock. If you can establish a relationship with the buyer and always supply well finished stock the buyer will be prepared to give you a fairly firm price when organising the sale, (before he has seen the animals). It is a good idea to have a set of electronic scales so that you KNOW how much your animals weigh.

  • Once you know a lamb's liveweight you can estimate its potential carcass weight by multiplying the liveweight by its expected meat yield percentage. Most types of lambs dress out at 46%-48% of their liveweight.
  • So a lamb that weighed 46kg would have an estimated carcass weight of 22kg (46 x 48% = 22kg)
  • These are the figures which saleyard buyers will be working on when assessing your lambs. This is one of the disadvantages of selling lambs through the saleyards as Dorpers and Dorper Cross lambs tend to have a higher meat yield than most other lambs; 52%-56%. Unless your saleyard buyer recognises that your lambs are higher yielding & is willing to pay more for your lambs than others of a comparable weight, you will not be financially rewarded for the extra meat on your lambs.
  • If selling direct to the abittoirs or meat buyer you will have still have to pay the government levy which will ultimately go to Meat & Livestock Australia to fund the work that they do on behalf of Australian Livestock producers.

    Meat buyers and Abittoirs will have certain specifications for the lambs or sheep that they buy. In many cases they want sheep or lambs within certain dressing weight and condition score ranges. The money that they pay for animals that fit within their specifications is usually good, however you can be heavilly penalised pricewise should animals fail to meet the specifications. It is therefore a good idea to be able to ensure that all animals that you supply for such sales meet the specifications demanded by the buyer.

    As well as having electronic scales so that you can weigh all animals, it is helpful if you also know how to condition score animals.

    Live Condition Scoring Sheep

    Live condition scoring is a simple, fast method of assessing the overall condition (thinness or fatness) of your stock. It provides an indication of available fat reserves that can be used by the animal in periods of high energy demand, stress, or suboptimal nutrition and allows producers to make better management decisions. Condition scoring is also a useful tool in assessing if lambs meet meat market specifications

    The five assessment scores for sheep vary from 1 (leanest) to 5 (fattest). Scores are based upon the actual fat / tissue thickness at the "GR" site which is 110mm from the mid-line over 12th rib on the sheep. The "GR" site is used an objective reference point because it is relatvely easy to measure on the hot carcase, relates well to the yield of saleable meat and is an accurate indication of the average fatness and musculature of the carcase and cuts of meat.

    For successful scoring of the live animal, have the sheep standing in a relaxed state, preferably in a race, a small pen or the livestock scales. If assessed in the correct manner, with careful palpation with the fingertips and thumb, the animal will not be bruised.

    Locate the last rib (the 13th). Using the balls of the fingers and thumb, try to feel the backbone with the thumb and the end of the short ribs with the finger tips immediately behind the last rib.

    Feel the muscle and fat cover around the ends of the short ribs and over the backbone. Feel the fullness of the eye muscle.

    The degree of roundness of the ends of the bones, the amount of tissue between the bones and the fullness of the eye muscle determines the condition or finish of the animal - the condition score.

    Fat Scores

    Grade

    GR tissue depth (mm)

    Description

    Assessment

    1.

    0 - 5

    Very lean

    Individual ribs felt very easily. Cannot feel any tissue over the ribs.

    2.

    6 - 10.

    Lean

    Individual ribs easliy felt however, some tissue is present.

    3.

    11 - 15.

    Moderately Lean

    Individual ribs can still be felt. Can feel more tissue over the ribs.

    4.

    16 - 20.

    Moderately Fat

    Can only just feel ribs. There is fluid movement of the tissue.

    5.

    21 +.

    Fat

    Ribs cannot be felt.Tissue movement is very fluid.

    Learning

    Live condition scoring of sheep is a "hands on " method of assessment which is a valuable tool in estimating carcase muscelling and fat cover. The level of accuracy can be improved upon by regularly comparing the condition score of a live lamb with the actual GR- measurement on the carcase.

    This information can be obtained from all AUS - MEAT acredited abattoirs and by closer liason with meat buyers and meat processors.

    Although demonstrations on how to live condition score can help, live condition scoring of sheep is a personal practical skill that is best learnt by practice. Producers are encouraged to assess their lambs before slaughter and to follow them through the abottoirs to inspect their carcasses.