Thursday, 30 July 2015

Thin is in for steak cuts

AHDB Beef & Lamb’s trade marketing team has recently completed in-depth research into thin cut beef steaks, looking at how they can to carve out a position as a versatile, everyday meal solution for families and young people alike. In this week’s guest blog Mike Whittemore, head of trade marketing, reveals the findings of that research and just what retailers need to do to ensure thin cut steaks are firmly on the menu.

Last year, AHDB Beef & Lamb launched the Steak Bar brand, which looked to ensure steak ranges are adapted to suit changing customer demands in foodservice and retail.

With convenience and versatility being key buying factors for modern shoppers, we wanted to look at products that could deliver this to include in the Steak Bar range. Thin cuts, being a quick-to-cook and adaptable option, offer a natural solution.

To understand why customers aren’t putting more thin cuts into their shopping baskets, despite the fact they meet so many of their cooking requirements, we undertook both product and consumer research.

What makes thin fashionable?
Our consumer research revealed that shoppers do not opt for thin cut steaks as a replacement for more traditional, indulgent steaks, for example sirloins, fillets and rib-eyes.

 Instead, for many shoppers, thin cuts are the healthy ingredient they want to add to their diet as an alternative to chicken.

Why doesn't thin make the cut?
While the research showed thin cuts do have a unique place in the market, they face a number of obstacles in furthering their appeal.

We found that, though thin cuts might feature on a customer’s shopping list, they can be difficult to locate within stores. They might be placed somewhere that isn't obvious or moved from week to week, which makes finding the steaks a task in its own right.

Sometimes the name of the steak is also a cause of confusion. With names ranging from sizzle steaks to sandwich steaks, shoppers find it difficult to work out what they are buying and which meal options the products fit into.

In reviewing the range of products currently available to buy, the team also discovered variation in product quality, with inconsistencies in fat levels, cooking instructions and thickness. These inconsistencies can lead to varying eating experiences, and bad experiences result in people turning away from the product altogether.

Consistency is key
It is clear from the research that consistency is the key to getting the products right, delivering customer confidence and ensuring people continue buying the product.
Shoppers want consistent use of names for thin cut steaks to give them an idea of what to expect from the product.

They also want consistency in location. Customers don’t want their food shop to be a mission, therefore continually placing the range in the same position will encourage repeat purchases.

Attention must also be paid to the specifications and butchery techniques. We need to be working to universal specifications that deliver consistency. Our own controlled product testing has showed that the three best performing cuts that meet customer expectations are the Tri-Tips, Tender Tops and Escallops. We've developed butchery tips and specifications for all three cuts which we will be presenting to retailers and foodservice operators.

We’re hoping these three solutions will help the industry capitalise on the potential of thin cut steaks and successfully market them as quick and easy-to-cook cuts which suit the eating needs of so many people.

To read the full report, or for further information about the thin cut range, head to the

Wednesday, 22 July 2015

Serbian livestock production: what can we learn about calf welfare?

Sophia Hepple is the first Nuffield scholar to be sponsored by AHDB Beef & Lamb. She began her project, Evaluation of calf management practices in early life which can impact on long-term survival and productivity, earlier this year. Sophie recently visited the Vojvodina region of North-West Serbia as part of her scholarship and reports back on her findings.

A relatively young country, Serbia gained its independence from the former Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia in June 2006 and is currently one of a number of “accession” countries which are being considered for entry to the European Union, hopefully within the next five to ten years.

My visit was kindly hosted by the Vojvodina region’s Chief Veterinary Officer, Danijela Kosomora, who is also a member of central Government’s animal welfare group.

I was impressed by the cattle traceability processes which are now in place and are required to allow trade with EU member states, even though the export trade is still quite small. Just as in the UK, some farmers have been embracing digital technology for years. Others are still very much paper-based or have the well-known “I keep it all in my head” approach, so, for them, adaptation to cattle identification and movement legislation has been a greater challenge!

Dairy cows are traditionally tethered throughout lactation
Considering it is less than ten years since Serbia gained its independence, the country’s progress towards meeting the European Commission’s Food & Veterinary Office (FVO) recommendations from previous inspections is certainly impressive.

In total, 80 per cent of the population in Vojvodina are employed in the agricultural sector and the region has a climate and soil type that can support a variety of arable crops. With hot summers and a clear focus on crop production, it is traditional practice in the region to house livestock and bring the feed to them. This is reflected in the dairy sector’s traditional tie-stalls for dairy cows throughout lactation. While I had read a lot about the health and welfare impacts of such systems, it was my first experience of seeing them in use. More recently, tie-stalls are being replaced by cubicle or straw-based systems, some with pasture access.

Calves assessed as compliant with the
EU calf directive
With respect to animal welfare laws, Serbia implemented national laws in 2010 to comply with European legislation on farmed animal welfare. However, it has now gone one step further as, at the end of 2014, with the help of Bristol University, it developed an inspection protocol based not just on input measures (e.g. minimum size of calf pens), but also on an animal-based measures approach, including criteria such as lameness, mortality and dirtiness scores.

I joined animal welfare inspectors as they visited four farms in the region, and, as well as interviewing the farmer specifically for my project, got to see how cattle and calf welfare assessments were carried out at an official level. The protocol was originally developed for UK inspections for assurance schemes wanting to focus specifically on measuring and bench-marking key welfare output measures, such as the RSPCA’s Freedom Food and Soil Association, under a Tubney Trust funded AssureWel project at Bristol University. I was impressed to find such protocols, originally developed just a few miles down the road from where I live, were now being rolled out 1,111 miles away in Serbia.

While I had previously visited Belgrade to train Serbian inspectors on calf and pig welfare in 2013, I had never left the hotel. It was so much more rewarding to actually visit the farmers and their livestock to understand them, the culture and current animal health and welfare challenges at a practical level.

Wednesday, 15 July 2015

Livestock Event showcase for new AHDB branding

Dairy, beef and sheep farmers from around the country congregated at the NEC in Birmingham last Wednesday and Thursday for the Livestock Event, a key event in the farming calendar.

For us at AHDB Beef & Lamb and our dairy sector colleagues, it marked an important milestone, as it was the first opportunity we’d had to showcase our new brand to an audience of livestock producers.

For the first time, we had a joint stand with AHDB Dairy. Located in the Animal Health area, it was right at the heart of the show and a great spot for passing visitors.

The shared stand sent a clear message to levy payers that we’re increasingly working and acting as one organisation, and the feedback from those who came to see us was certainly positive. Many visitors were able to benefit from advice from AHDB staff on stand, with the joint approach enabling us to offer a wide breadth of expertise.

While the Livestock Event was the first time the beef and lamb and dairy divisions had exhibited under one AHDB banner, away from the bright lights of the NEC there has been plenty of joint working going on in the background.

With around 50 per cent of beef consistently coming from the dairy herd, and both sectors dealing with grazing livestock, the synergies that can be gained from working together are already being exploited by our research and development and knowledge transfer teams.

Recent joint ventures have included the Healthy Grassland Soils project, an online resource to help grassland farmers study soil properties and select the most appropriate management practices. Both sectors are also involved in the annual production of the Recommended Grass and Clover Lists (RGCL), which are a valuable source of information for all grassland producers.

We share the funding of several cattle health-related PhDs and are working on a series of parasite meetings as part of our association with COWS, the industry group aiming to promote best practice in the control of cattle parasites. Plus both the Beef & Lamb and Dairy divisions of AHDB are involved in the livestock industry data exchange project referenced in a previous post.

Areas of shared interest with some of the other AHDB divisions may be less evident, however there are certain themes that are common across all agricultural sectors. Crop nutrition, for example, is one of the key elements required to optimise production in any field. This is why AHDB is independently reviewing information in the current RB209 fertiliser manual, as well as more recent nutrient management research, in order to produce a new AHDB Nutrient Management Guide in 2017.

Innovation and technology is another significant area of overlap, and this will be in the spotlight at the AHDB Smart Agriculture Conference in September. The exciting new event will bring together scientists, researchers and engineers from multiple disciplines together to look at how advances in other industries can help address farmers’ needs, and which technological developments will be instrumental to the future of precision farming.

While you’re likely to see more of this joined-up approach in future, with the aim of getting maximum benefit from our levy income, it’s important to stress that our busy programme of work specifically aimed at the beef and lamb sector will continue as before.

If you want to know more about the work we’re doing on behalf of the industry, visit our website or sign up for the AHDB Beef & Lamb e-news.

Monday, 6 July 2015

Strong Sterling keeps lamb prices under enormous pressure

AHDB Beef & Lamb chairman Stuart Roberts takes a look at the factors behind the current lamb price and how much the current exchange rate is affecting things.

A perfect storm of strong Sterling, less money from lamb retail sales going to producers and a plummet in the price of skins is the main cause of the current sheep price depression.

Our own figures demonstrate Sterling’s strength against the Euro is accounting for up to 47p/kg deadweight in the differential between the price now and this time last year.

Over the same period, a skin price drop of approximately £3.50 accounts for 18p/kg deadweight and the retail price spread shows retailers have increased their share by 63p/kg since last year’s figures – at the expense of producers.

However, all indicators point to a recovery of the sheep price in the longer term as these issues realign and demand for sheep meat rises with religious festivals, peak domestic demand season, and strategic advertising coming online.

We speak a lot about price volatility. There are some things you can try and mitigate or influence, and others that you can’t. The exchange rate is something completely out of our hands. The situation in Greece is creating additional uncertainty. If all other factors remain unchanged, our analysis shows that if the value of the pound in Euros rises by two cents, the GB lamb price in Sterling will fall by up to 5.5p/kg (just over £1/head).

Another interesting piece of analysis we have recently carried out shows how the farmer share of retail prices fell in June, against what we would perhaps expect at this time of year. At the moment there is a major concern that it could drift even further in July.

Whilst underlying prices are influenced significantly by exchange rates, the importance of increasing demand can't be understated. Earlier in the year we saw a wide range of significant retailer promotions utilising imported lamb, but there is little of that type of activity going on at the moment, when domestic production is reaching its peak with good numbers of lambs coming forward.

The importance of reversing a steady decline in lamb consumption has been brought into focus with the recent launch of our joint consumer lamb campaign, Tasty, Easy Fun. Co-funded by the European Union, AHDB Beef & Lamb, Interbev in France and Bord Bia, in Ireland, it will see €7.7 million invested in promotion of lamb over the next three years.

Separately, significant consumer work to stimulate demand for lamb products is already planned for the autumn, when there is peak supply of domestic product.

The Quality Standard Mark (QSM) also plays an important role in helping to differentiate quality product that has guarantees over the eating quality and provenance among other things.

Alongside these actions we have already decided to fast-track some of the vital trade marketing work we do, engaging with the retailers and food service outlets, encouraging the adoption of new cuts and new butchery techniques aimed at improving the consumer experience and drive up consumption.

We will also be focusing on food service to get lamb on more menus, while independent retailers will be encouraged to prepare and present lamb better and merchandise higher trimmed cuts.

You can find out more about the EU lamb promotion campaign here

Wednesday, 1 July 2015

How big data can help beef and sheep producers

AHDB Beef & Lamb assistant regional manager Joseph Keating is helping to coordinate a project in the livestock industry to create a comprehensive data exchange. As our guest blogger this week, he talks about how it could work and the wider role “big data” can play in the industry.

We’re all aware of the vast amount of information generated throughout the supply chain, ranging from animal identification to abattoir grades, and everything in been between. I’ve seen the huge benefits data can have for individual farm businesses. However, as an industry, we have been poor at maximising the potential of this information.

Recently, I was lucky enough to attend a Copa-Cogeca meeting on Big Data for Farmers and Cooperatives. I was amazed by the smart technology being used by farmers and cooperatives across Europe.

In the Netherlands, breeding company CRV believes that in order to give the best advice and service to its customers, and to extract the full potential from the data, it needs to share data with other systems. Farmers define what data can be shared and the CRV database connects with a number of different systems. For example, a monitor on a cow’s neck can detect heat. This sends a message to the database and the most appropriate AI bull is automatically selected. The system can even send a technician out to administrate the straw.

The conference had a number of other examples from across the EU, but the core principle common to all is the need for collaboration and data exchange.

I think most would broadly agree that, to get the maximum benefit, data needs to be shared. This is a simple principle, but not always easy in practice. Data ownership and privacy is an important issue. This shouldn’t, though, be seen as a reason to do nothing. Like any other industry, if we want to move forward, we need access to accurate, timely and relevant information. 

One telling point from the conference was the general lack of examples of practical data use from the beef and sheep sector. Unfortunately, we are the poor relation when it comes to sharing and using industry-generated data. In a bid to change this, AHDB has been looking at ways to address some of the problems around utilisation of data within the sector. In conjunction with a wider industry steering group, we submitted a successful bid to the Agri-Tech Catalyst fund to support the development of a pilot system. This system could effectively work as a search engine to facilitate data exchange between Government, industry and private databases.
The livestock industry data exchange hub could also, for the first time, provide the cattle industry with a facility to underpin risk-based trading for economically important diseases, such bovine viral diarrhoea (BVD) and Johnes disease. If the pilot is successful and taken forward by the industry, the capabilities are numerous and not just limited to animal health.

So, while, to some outside observers, it may still seem as if agriculture is an industry stuck in the past, it is increasingly looking to more high tech solutions – and big data in particular – to drive efficiency and help inform business decisions.