International Lamb Profile
World sheep and lamb numbers are similar to those that existed in the 1960s. However, productivity increases have caused total world production to climb from 11 billion pounds to 18 billion pounds. China is the largest producer followed by the European Union, Australia, and New Zealand. Although world production has increased, demand has increased more than supply and resulted in record prices recently.
Australian sheep inventories have declined to 22 million head in 2016. New Zealand’s inventory has also declined to 23.7 million head in 2016. Inventory in the European Union was 98 million head in 2013. China’s inventories have been growing substantially, making them the top producer. Some growth in sheep numbers has occurred in India, Pakistan, and North Africa. Although world inventory numbers have declined, productivity increases have increased world lamb and mutton production levels. Production of lamb meat has increased in both India and China over the past decade.
Asia and Mexico experienced increases in per capita consumption primarily because of increasing personal incomes and urbanization. Total consumption in these regions was also influenced by population growth. South America, the United States, Oceania, and Europe experienced declines in per capita lamb consumption of 50% or more since 1965.
Although world per capita lamb consumption totals just over 4 pounds annually, U.S. per capita lamb consumption was only 0.7 pounds in 2014. In contrast, annual per capita consumption in Australia and Kazakhstan totaled 19 pounds and 18 pounds, respectively. Per capita consumption in Africa is about 4.5 pounds.
Australia and New Zealand are the world’s principal lamb and mutton exporters. Australia exports 44% of its lamb production and 80% of its mutton crop. New Zealand exports 80% of its lamb production annually and 84% of its mutton.
The United States is the largest export market for Australian lamb, followed by the Middle East, European Union, and China. In terms of volume, exports to the United States, the Middle East, and China are similar. Key markets for live sheep exports include Jordan, Qatar, and Kuwait.
The European Union accounts for 57% of New Zealand’s lamb export value. Principal New Zealand export markets in terms of volume were the United Kingdom (19%), China (12%), and the United States (7%). In terms of value, the United Kingdom was New Zealand’s largest market followed by the United States and Germany. New Zealand’s primary export market for live sheep is Saudi Arabia.
The United States exports only minimal amounts of lamb (about 2% of domestic supplies). The U.S. sheep industry exports cull ewes and rams to Mexico where they are slaughtered to produce mutton. Total live sheep exports have been decreasing drastically in recent years. The reduction in live animal exports was primarily the result of lower U.S. culling rates given current record domestic lamb prices.
The European Union is the world’s largest lamb and mutton importer (490 million pounds annually). The United States and China each import about 140 million pounds. Income growth in many developing countries has increased lamb meat imports. For example, China’s per capita lamb consumption has increased about 4% since 1980. But, with a population that exceeds 1 billion, even small percentage increases in per capita consumption have required China to increase imports by 500% over the past 20 years.
U.S. lamb imports have increased over the past decade, while European Union imports have been relatively flat. Lamb imports account for nearly one-half of U.S. lamb consumption. About 65% of U.S. lamb imports originate in Australia and 35% in New Zealand.
Australia and New Zealand have a competitive advantage in sheep and lamb production relative to other countries. The advantage is generated by lower production costs, high quality, and aggressive trade programs. Nonetheless, both Australia and New Zealand have experienced drought conditions in recent years. Producers in both countries have also shifted production enterprises away from sheep towards dairy, crops, and other livestock.
The livestock sectors in many countries are facing environmental challenges. Soil salinity, woody and invasive weeds, and land-use issues pose substantial challenges to the sheep industries in Western Australia. In New Zealand, weather events and pressures on the country’s natural resource base provide substantial environmental challenges to the expansion of sheep production. Coupled with drought conditions in one of the major sheep producing regions in the United States, it may be several years before current high prices trigger herd expansions in major sheep producing countries.
New Zealand and Australia are the world’s leaders in lamb exports and account for nearly 90% of global export quantity. Thus, declining inventories in these two countries has tightened meat supplies and led to higher prices. While countries such as India, Pakistan, Algeria, and Sudan have increased sheep inventories, substantial population growth has caused demand to increase more than domestic supplies.
Given the size of the New Zealand and Australian production sectors and their importance in world exports, these two countries will continue to be the major players in world markets.
World meat consumption
Australian Sheep Industry
Lamb Crop, 2016
Sheep and Goat, 2017
U.S. Meat and Poultry Consumption, 2015
American Sheep Industry Association
Global Agricultural Trade Systems, Foreign Agricultural Service, USDA.
Principal Ag Commodities, Australian Bureau of Statistics, 2007-2008.
Sheep and Goats, National Agricultural Statistics Service, USDA.
Sheep and Goats: Frequently Asked Questions, ATTRA Sustainable Agriculture
Stock Number Survey, Beef and Lamb New Zealand
Links updated November 2018.