Omega Lamb

The Omega Lamb programme aims to produce the world's tastiest, healthiest lamb and increase returns for farmers. The programme is targeting premium markets through a new, healthier type of lamb meat – with higher levels of polyunsaturated fats and omega-3 fatty acids.

The challenge

cooked rack of lamb
Omega Lamb – healthier, tastier, natural lamb.

Over the past 20 years, the sheep industry has focused on increasing lamb productivity and yield, selecting animals for lower fat levels.

However, reducing fat has had unintended consequences.

Lower fat affects processing, cooking and taste of red meat – much of the flavour of meat comes from fat.

Lower sheep fat (condition) also affects how well ewes cope in winter and raise their lambs.

The Omega Lamb programme recognised an opportunity to breed lambs that increase returns for farmers, while meeting the growing demand for premium healthy, tasty food.

The solution

Research found the right combination of genetics, management and pasture could be used to change the types and amounts of fat. Omega Lamb targets premium markets with a new type of lamb that has higher levels of polyunsaturated (good) fats and omega-3 fatty acids – producing healthier sheep, and healthier, tastier, more succulent meat.

Taste tests have already shown that good fat composition improves the taste of lamb, and in October 2016, an Omega Lamb dish won the silver medal in the Culinary Olympics in Germany.

Sheep in a field with lambs
Omega ewes produce healthier lambs.

Improved condition, also means Omega ewes are thriving better on New Zealand's hill country and producing faster-growing lambs.

The Omega Lamb programme takes a new approach to naturally breeding, raising, processing and marketing premium New Zealand lamb. An understanding of the top end of the market is guiding on-farm processing and marketing decisions.

The programme could add over $400 million in domestic and export earnings, increase revenue for farmers by 34%, and deliver a 19-fold return on government investment.

Outcome Logic Model

Outcomes to date

On farm

  • Bred a selection of New Zealand white-faced breeds specifically for the Omega projects. Hundreds of genetic lines were screened for taste and fat with the very best brought into the Omega flock at Stag Valley, Lumsden.
  • More than 15,000 lambs have reached the programme's criteria for omega-3, intramuscular and polyunsaturated fats. They average well over the required level for long-chain omega-3 of 30mg. Only 2 of 35 groups have averaged less than 30mg.
  • Lambs are achieving an average of 3% intramuscular fat (in loin) against 2% average for New Zealand lamb. Although grain-fed animals can reach 5% intramuscular fat as adults, this is high for a pasture-fed animal under 6 months old.
  • All lambs are tagged, individually recorded, and traced to ensure they have the right genetics, feeding, management and welfare. 
  • Data is showing positive correlation between fat composition of the lamb and mother, and between hill ewe condition and carcase fat. Intramuscular fat and omega-3 traits continue to improve.
  • Demonstrated a 'sweet spot' for improved carcase quality and ewe condition, without unwanted characteristics such as excess fat under lamb skin.

Understanding consumers and market development

  • The first stage of the programme requires improved understanding of consumers. Initial work focused on New Zealand and western markets. This will be expanded to include 'new wealth' in markets such as China, India and Brazil.
  • Building on research to identify and understand target consumers, and routes to market.
  • Product ideas and prototype health-focused products are being tested with target consumer groups. The scope is expanding from fresh meat to include manufactured meat products and health-related products.
  • Completed multiple taste panels, including with leading New Zealand chefs. All had positive results showing a large difference between standard and Omega lamb.

Product development and adding value

Opportunities to increase value are limited when lamb is supplied to other companies for re-processing, packaging and retailing. Omega Lamb focuses on high value products, manufactured and packed for final consumer needs in New Zealand, along with a system to prove where the lamb comes from.

A series of 'first-in-class' products will be developed at a pilot plant that cross over between the meat and health food sectors. 

Achievements for the 2017/18 financial year

Seasons kill completed

  • A second production season of commercial chicory-fed Omega lambs is now complete, with all lambs produced to exacting management standards and are fully traceable.
  • More than 48,000 Omega lambs slaughtered in 2017/18 to full chicory specification.
  • Ram selection and mating for 2018/19 production has been completed. Rams were selected using breeding values for hill county performance, intramuscular fat and Omega-3.

In-plant quality measures confirm quality of Omega kill

  • Analysis of hyperspectral quality measurements on lambs processed at the Smithfield plant confirm overall consistency and favourable quality of Omega/chicory-fed lambs compared to concurrent Alliance general kill including: fat cover, intramuscular fat, Omega-3 and pH values.
  • The dataset is being used to identify key on-farm actions to continue to improve quality and consistency.

Distributer agreements and market champions progressed

  • TE MANA market development was progressed by the High Health Alliance (HHA) / Alliance in Germany, Dubai, Southern New Zealand and Australia, and agreements with existing distributors are being reviewed.

High profile media publicising true differentiation of Omega product

  • Very positive Cuisine Magazine and Country Calendar features on the programme.

Progress in processed products targeting under-utilised carcass components

  • A range of relationships are being developed with innovative New Zealand food companies to utilise all parts of the differentiated Omega lamb carcass and produce a range of branded consumer-ready products.

Key facts

Programme start: July 2015
Length: 7 years
PGP funding: $12.5 million
Industry funding: $12.5 million
Crown funding paid out to programme for work done to 30 June 2019: $8,531,135
Commercial partners: Alliance Group and Headwaters New Zealand 
Estimated potential economic benefits to NZ: Up to $400 million over 25 years.


Quarterly Progress Report Summaries

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