Capturing Premiums with Small Ruminant Products Through Niche Marketing

Dr. Brady Campbell, Assistant Professor, OSU State Small Ruminant Extension Specialist

(Image Source: American Lamb Board)

As the holidays for Easter and Eid al Fitr (the breaking of the Ramadan fast) quickly approach, small ruminant producers are hastily making their final marketing decisions. For those that are still on the fence, don’t worry, there are plenty of options! This piece isn’t to pressure you to sell your animals in the next few weeks, but rather to think about the costs, benefits, and challenges of marketing now versus marketing later. Each operation is different and thus marketing opportunities will be unique to each producer.

One of the greatest benefits of producing small ruminants is the opportunity to produce and market a wide variety of both common and specialty products. For me, small ruminants are a triple threat species. From the 30,000 ft. view, most sheep and goats have the ability to produce meat, milk, and wool/fiber. Beyond this general categorization, we can further break this down into breeding stock, show animals, commercial stock, a variety of meat and offal products, wool, fibers, and hides, along with many others. However, not to be misleading, this isn’t to say that each product has a secured consumer or market in place. This is where you are a producer, entrepreneur, and marketer come into play.

Before we get into the details of different types of markets, first we must ask, “What exactly is niche marketing?” Niche marketing can be described as targeted marketing, a process in which you specifically focus in on an aspect of the market with a specific consumer in mind. Your marketing efforts are concentrated, small, specific, and well-defined. In using this strategy, your newly established niche market will be able to withstand the competition of mass markets.

However, one of the greatest challenges that the sheep industry faces when it comes to niche marketing is the biological process of seasonality. For example, sheep are considered short day breeders meaning that sheep will naturally breed in the fall and lamb in the spring. Can we blame mother nature for this? It makes the most sense as this is the time of year when natural resources (i.e., forages) are of great abundance. Therefore, fresh lamb is available in the spring and summer months, but in general there may be a decrease in availability over the fall and winter months depending upon your operations management practices. With this being said, it becomes a challenge to provide consistent products over the course of the year. However, through the use of good management and developing a great understanding of the market you wish to be involved in, producers are able to successfully make these systems work.

Now that we have an understanding of what niche marketing is and some of the challenges associated with it, what niche markets are available to you as a producer? Below are three potential niche markets to be involved in when compared to commercial production.

Show Stock
As many of us know, club, market, or purebred breeding animals are livestock projects that are raised by youth and adults alike to be shown and exhibited at livestock functions. In recent years, this segment of the industry has obtained a lot of attention and is an industry that demands a premium. These animals tend to generate more income on a per head basis as compared to commercial production. The premium from these animals is greatly associated with genetics, structure, form, muscling, and phenotypic appearance. There is also a great deal of emphasis on animal management (i.e., ensuring females conceive during breeding), nutrition (especially during the showing season), health, and marketing. This is an extremely competitive market to initially enter, but once established is enjoyable and can be quite profitable.

Holiday Lambs
For those lambs bound for the holiday market, their name is exactly their intent. Holiday lambs are those lambs that are produced and marketed in a timely manner to supply the increased demand of lamb intended for a specific holiday. Therefore, these types of lambs in this market are strategically born at a specific time of the year and raised to a specific weight depending upon the market of interest. During specific holidays, lamb is may be the main course as a part of the tradition. Therefore, lamb will demand a premium during these holidays. Below is a brief list of religious holidays in which lamb is a center piece at the dinner table.

Christian holidays:

  • Western/Roman Easter
  • Eastern/Greek (Orthodox) Easter
  • Christmas

Islamic holidays:

  • Eid ul Adha – The Festival of Sacrifice
  • Muharram – Islamic New Year
  • Mawlid al Nabi – Birthday of the Islamic prophet Muhammad
  • Ramadan Eid al Fitr – The breaking of the Ramadan Fast

Jewish holidays:

  • Pesach – Passover
  • Rosh Hashanah – Jewish New Year
  • Chanukkah – Hanukkah

One important thought to note. In some cases, these holidays will change from year to year, whereas others do not. Be sure to review the ethnic holiday calendar well in advance when making decisions upon what market you will be providing lambs for in order to make the most appropriate and economic management decisions. In many cases, this planning process needs to take place at least a year in advance depending upon the holiday of interest. Be sure to review the holiday calendar above. Notice how holidays will change based upon event and faith. For those looking to plan their lambing and kidding seasons well in advance, be sure to visit the American Lamb Resource Center of an updated calendar and by using a quick Google search of ‘sheep and goat ethnic holidays’. Remember, when targeting specific holidays, sheep and goats should be sold 2-3 weeks prior to the holiday to allow for animal harvest, processing, and ultimately purchase by the consumer.

Hot House Lambs
Hot house lambs are also a unique set of lambs that you could offer on your operation in niche marketing. Hot house lambs are lambs that are milk fed and typically born out-of-season (i.e., fall born lambs). Hot house lambs are generally marketed at lighter body weights (~25 – 60 lbs.). In some cases, producers will allow their lambs to nurse for 60 – 120 days and then market these animals at weaning. The benefit of this type of market includes decreased feed cost for growing lambs and may require less space as for a majority of the production cycle producers would only be managing their ewe flock. In addition, when timed correctly, some of these hot house lambs will also fit the market of some holidays, which will also demand a greater premium.

Concluding thoughts
Regardless of the market you intend on selling in, be sure to do your homework. Ensuring that you understand the product that is being demanded by the market, the targeted consumer, and the time of the year specific animals or products are demanded will greatly benefit your marketing decisions. These two factors will great influence the management decisions in which you make within your operation. Please note that when pursuing these types of markets, there more than likely will be an increase in production costs. For example, hot house lambs are typically born in the fall. The use of CIDR’s, exogenous hormones, and an increase in labor force may be needed in order to successfully produce these types of lambs. Be sure to make a budget. Calculating the benefits of achieving premiums in niche markets against the increase in production costs will also help lead you in the right direction when deciding which market to ultimately pursue. Best of luck in your marketing programs and Happy Shepherding!