At Barewood Station, manager Marty Deans is excited about the opportunity to "make a difference".

That difference was an involvement with the Omega Lamb Project which has the goal of producing the world's tastiest and healthiest lamb.

"We feel you've got to do something different to ask for a price differential. Do the same old, get the same old. We've got to be doing things differently," Mr Deans said.

The project is part of the Omega Lamb Primary Growth Partnership (PGP) programme, a collaboration between Alliance Group, Headwaters Group and the Ministry for Primary Industries.

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It built on a decade-long scientific programme that explored the benefits of putting fat "back into the mix" in a positive way; producing animals with higher polyunsaturated fatty acids, intramuscular fat and omega.

For some years, the sheep industry had focused on selecting animals for lower fat levels.

But a level of fat was needed by ewes to survive the winter and raise lambs and it was also needed for red meat to process and cook well and be tender and succulent.

Research found the right combination of genetics, management and feeding could alter the fat profile of lamb and produce animals that were themselves healthier and also healthier for the consumer, containing higher levels of "good fat" - polyunsaturated fat and omega 3.

Project manager Mike Tate said it was a project that had "really captured people's imagination".

A great group of farmers was involved, getting behind something they believed in, equally as had Alliance Group and the science team.

The outcome of the initial thinking was largely driven around the health aspect but the real surprise was a product that did taste different.

It was flavourful, with a cleaner mouth feel, and they were getting strong feedback from chefs.

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"We really want to produce ... the best-tasting, best-for-you lamb in the world. When people taste the product and really understand this is something that's ... extraordinary in terms of the taste and health aspects," Mr Tate said.

His role involved working across the value chain, from chefs in Hong Kong to farmers in rural New Zealand.

There was a strong focus on the customer and the customer experience. Customers also wanted to understand the origins of the product they were consuming.

"One of our lines is working together for an altogether different result. That's really what it's about."

The top end of the market was being targeted for the product, with the aim of achieving the best price that could be attained.

One thing most people were unaware of was that red meat was a source of omega 3, second only in terms of oily fish, he said.

Stock manager Blair Thwaites with ewes and lambs at Barewood Station.
Stock manager Blair Thwaites with ewes and lambs at Barewood Station.

There were genetic lines that had a genetic propensity to put on unsaturated fat and omega 3, as opposed to saturated.

By looking at feeding and discovering that when you put the right genetics and feeds together, "the magic really happens", he said.

From a PGP point of view, the big challenge was to integrate a value chain and line up genetics, feeding and processing and then deliver that to markets, he said.

Geneticist Aimee Charteris said the work done concerning consumer health traits had also been beneficial for the ewe on-farm. It was a win for the ewe and a win for the lamb, with fat essentially being "our golden nugget".

"It'll be a fabulous result for the ewe. She will be able to perform in an arduous environment and do what we require her to do as a high-performing ewe, and also produce lamb with all the factors and features we require to make a product better for human health," she said.

Napier-based Ms Charteris was passionate about getting it right for both the animal and the end purpose.

"What I love about it the most is what's better for the ewe and better for the human. I'm really into that type of thing."

The project had also been an excellent example of "outstanding" team work and literally viewing the supply chain as a team, rather than a series of individuals.

Last year, 15,000 lambs were produced for the Omega programme and this year, the goal was to produce 25,000 lambs which would then go through to market.

Brought up with a sheep and beef background near Gisborne, Ms Charteris has degrees in animal science and animal breeding and genetics from Massey University.

It was a "very cool job" and part of telling the story was about getting young graduates intrigued in science "because it actually is really cool".

"We're going to need practical scientists more and more. Competition is coming in the form of synthetic meat. Unless we've got a great story to tell, we might be in a tricky situation. For me ... I would much rather eat a product we are producing than eat synthetic meat," she said.

Being involved with the project has been a "pretty exciting trip" for Mr Deans, who is approaching his 20th year at Barewood.

The 6300ha sheep and beef property, between Outram and Middlemarch, is owned by Lone Star Farms, a sheep and beef cattle farming enterprise owned by Nelson-based United States expat Tom Sturgess and his wife Heather.

At Lone Star Farms, there was a philosophy that there was "no such thing as 'yes, but', it was 'yes, and'," Mr Deans said.

"We were the guinea pigs. It wasn't a matter of it's not going to work [but] how's it going to work. We hopped in," he said.

People had "gone crazy" about health attributes and he believed there were exciting times ahead.

"The proof is in the pudding and we've been fortunate enough to have a couple of goes at the pudding," he said, referring to opportunities to sample lamb from the programme and its notable difference to standard lamb.

The biggest impact of the project at Barewood was at lamb-marking time, with lambs having to be electronic-identification (EID) tagged.

Initially, the prospect of tagging about 24,000 lambs might have seemed a little daunting, but it had quickly opened their eyes up to EID and what new technologies could do.

From there, it was business as usual. The lambs could not be finished at Barewood, as the property was not suited to the specialised chicory and chicory-red clover blends of pasture required, so they were dispatched to Caberfeidh Station in the Hakataramea Valley, another Lone Star Farms-owned property.

The EID technology meant Caberfeidh manager Andrew Harding was supplied with lambs as he required, and at weights he required, so it removed any "guesswork".

Barewood, which was the biggest supplier to the project, provided Mr Harding with lambs that were "just raring to go", Mr Deans said. Mr Deans expected they would supply about 15,000 lambs to the Omega project this year.

Barewood's stock manager Blair Thwaites said the technology used was "all pretty new" to him, but it had been a matter of embracing it. It was all about recording and communication.

All producers and finishers had a conference call every two weeks so everybody knew what was going on.

"We've made a difference here. The difference is being made at the farm gate," Mr Deans said.

MPI Primary Growth Partnership manager Steve Penno described it as a "really exciting" project for the red meat sector, and benefits of up to $400million over 25 years were expected.

Farming had always been a tough business and anything that could be done to help red meat farmers was great for them and for New Zealand.

The farmer involvement in the programme was seen as a real strength, Mr Penno said.