Invercargill-based meat company Alliance Group has developed what it says is a new, tastier, class of lamb.

Alliance is part of the Omega Lamb Primary Growth Partnership - a group of 50 high country farmers and the Ministry for Primary industries - which was formed to come up with an improved product aimed at the premium end of the market.

The partnership aims to increase the total value of lamb and the share of value captured in New Zealand by building high quality, branded products.

Initial feedback from chefs and high end restaurants for the new class has so far been favourable, Mike Tate, general manager of the project, said.

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Alliance - New Zealand's biggest sheep meat exporter - says the
project has potential to add over $400 million in new domestic and export earnings and increase lamb revenues by 34 per cent for farmers who adopt the new class.

The farmers, who have formed a group called Headwaters, are typically big run holders in the foot hills of the Southern Alps, although some farm in the North Island.

The project comes at a time of declining sheep numbers - this year's lamb crop will be the lowest since 1953 - and a difficult market for lamb, particularly after Britain's decision to exit the European Union.

Tate says Omega's approach is a departure from the last 20 years, which have seen the industry focus on selecting animals for lower fat levels.

The project takes a different view of fat. A level of fat is needed by ewes to survive the winter and raise lambs, he says.

Fat is also needed for red meat to process well, cook well and be tender and succulent.

In other words, much of the flavour is contained within the fat, Tate says.

The programme builds on a decade-long scientific study that has explored the upside of putting fat back into the mix in a positive way; producing animals with higher polyunsaturated fatty acids, intramuscular fat and omega-3, which is normally associated with fish oil.

Tate said the right combination genetics, management and feeding can alter the fat profile of lamb and produce animals that are themselves healthier and also healthier for the consumer, containing higher levels of what nutritionists call "good fat" -- polyunsaturated fat and omega-3.

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We are looking at the whole lamb value chain as a modern business totally focused on the quality of the product rather than the volume in kilos...

The product - which is yet to have a brand name - is already getting a trial run in end restaurants, and Tate said the feedback was that it outscored standard lamb in terms of succulence and tenderness.

The programme aims to produce ewes better able to thrive on New Zealand's hill country and 'bonny', fast growing lambs. Putting additional fat on ewes delivers higher ewe performance and animal welfare, he says.

So far, more than 15,000 lambs have reached the programme's criteria for omega-3, intramuscular and polyunsaturated fats.

The lambs arrived on the finishing properties at an average 32kg and processed between 30 and 40 days later at around 38kg, fed specialised chicory and chicory/red clover blends. To make the grade, lambs also have to make stringent weight gain targets within specific stages.

"It's more a system that involves breeding in part, and then finishing," he says.

"We are looking at the whole lamb value chain as a modern business totally focused on the quality of the product rather than the volume in kilos, which has been the traditional thinking," Tate told the Herald.

"We have been working on this process for 10 years and on really understanding the genetic qualities that influence product qualities such as taste and succulence," he said. There is little little difference in the outward appearance of the animal; whic is a standard, white faced hill country breed.

While initial trials have been favourable, consumers are unlikely to grace dinner tables this Christmas; Omega is targeting the high end restaurant trade, so is unlikely to be in the supermarkets any time soon.