29/08/2006 - 22:00

Lamb arrives with a spring in its step

29/08/2006 - 22:00

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Restaurant menus around town go through a massive change as the seasons switch from winter to spring. Sauces get lighter, flavours get fresher and new-season produce is quickly given a starring role.

Lamb arrives with a spring in its step

Restaurant menus around town go through a massive change as the seasons switch from winter to spring. Sauces get lighter, flavours get fresher and new-season produce is quickly given a starring role.

In Australia, and particularly Western Australia, spring lamb has best represented these changes.

With supplies at their most plentiful at this time of year, chefs are working hard to prepare a range of dishes highlighting the amazing depth of quality and possibilities associated with domestic lamb.

And the rest of us seem to have caught on, with sales of lamb on the increase. While to some extent this can be attributed to effective television advertising campaigns, the rise in lamb’s position on our plates is also due to the quality associated with the development of a specialist prime lamb industry since the mid 1990s.

And it is big business as well, with the Australian Bureau of Statistics estimating the gross value of Australia’s sheep production last year at $1.86 billion.

But if lamb is the barometer of new season taste, then it is also one of the best indicators of what’s happening on farms across the country, and how seasonal conditions can affect what’s available on menus across the city.

Recent Meat & Livestock Australia survey results indicate that, for the second successive year, there has been a fall in total lambs on hand (available to be slaughtered) in WA – down 3 per cent at June 2006, to 6.8 million.

But so good are prices at saleyards at the moment ($85 last week) that it’s expected there will be a 9 per cent increase in the number of lambs slaughtered in WA, to 1.5 million.

Nationally, that figure is expected to be 7.7 million lambs this spring.

This higher-than-expected rate is good news for domestic lamb lovers, as 55 per cent of all lamb produced is consumed right here in Australia.

But it is also good for the lamb exporters, who enjoyed a 16 per cent increase in lamb exported on 2005-06 levels, to 143,300 tonnes. That’s a rise in value of 12 per cent, to $783 million.

But more lamb doesn’t necessarily mean lower prices. Early last month WA’s biggest lamb processor, WAMMCO, warned that lamb prices could rise as much as one third in response to the higher feed prices farmers are now paying for their stock.

Other industry analysts suggest it is too early to guess as to what, if any, upward pressure the current harsh seasonal conditions will have on lamb prices.

In difficult agricultural years, such as those experienced across much of the country recently, farmers struggle to fatten their stock up to acceptable levels, which means the premium quality cuts – fillet and racks – are the first to rise in price.

The MLA survey indicates that almost 37 per cent of all lambs expected to be sold between autumn 2006 and autumn 2007 are likely to be fed hay or grain supplements (up from 32 per cent last season).

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