Why Should You Eat Lamb?

Lamb meat sometimes has a reputation for being “smelly” or just being “gross.” Unfortunately, what may have been labeled as “lamb” might really have been “mutton.” The difference is only in age. Lamb is categorized as a sheep under one year old. Mutton comes from any sheep over that limit. There’s some leeway there, but that’s the general rule of thumb. Older sheep, like any animal, tend to have more flavorful meat. The body accumulates a number of compounds, minerals, and micronutrients in the muscle and fat. These leads to a more robust flavor, whether that’s good or bad is usually down to preference.

Lamb meat is mild in its flavoring. It has a very similar taste and texture to that of beef, but there is a richness to lamb meat that beef just doesn’t have. Grass fed lamb isn’t just a delicious Sunday dinner. There are also many environmental and health considerations that make lamb a worthwhile purchase. There are benefits to eating lamb that other meats aren’t able to always match.

Lamb is considered a “complete protein” and contains all nine of the essential amino acids along with CLA in higher quantities than you would find in beef. CLA is considered to have many health benefits. In lamb, you will also find high quantities of vitamins and minerals such as B12, Zinc, Iron, and bioactive nutrients and antioxidants. Some of these include creatine, taurine, and glutathione. These are good for heart and muscle health. Overall, lamb packs a lot into a small space, providing an easily-digested protein that contains more beneficial nutrients than many other meats or vegetable proteins.

Environmentally speaking, lamb meat is a positive choice for regenerating the soil and improving pasture. More farmers are turning to sheep as a method for reducing parasite loads in both cattle and sheep, increasing variety in pastures, and improving soil health. Most sheep are raised on grass and do well even with poor-quality forages. Katahdins, with their goat-like qualities, also make do with browsing on low-hanging tree branches and chomping down on bramble leaves. While not as effective as goats, sheep can help to clear pastures of unwanted plants.

The split hooves of sheep also loosen soil and allow pasture seeds to gain a strong connection to soil and water, allowing thicker swards and a thicker sward means more CO2 absorption. Their manure is formed into small pellets that absorb into the ground slowly and don’t smother grasses. Running sheep and cattle together, either in the same paddock or one trailing after the other, reduces parasites since most parasites are species-specific and provides a more evenly grazed pasture since sheep and cattle prefer different plants.

In some places, sheep have their tails docked or their skin “crutched” on their rear to prevent flies from laying eggs in poo stuck to their wool. Katahdins, who have no wool, only hair, do not require tail docking. Crutching, now considered a cruel practice, is never done on the WPP farm. Male lambs are castrated humanely within two weeks of their birth so they have minimal discomfort. In addition to being a healthy protein source and a positive environmental support, you don’t have to worry about whether the lamb you buy is treated ethically and humanely when you buy from Wise Produce and Proteins.

How They’re Raised-Sheep

If you haven’t read the beginnings of how I ended up with sheep, first go read that story!

I chose hair sheep after long and careful consideration. Being a small farmer, starting with a single ewe and her lambs, it would not have been easy to deal with the yearly or biyearly shearing of a few sheep. Nor would it have been cost efficient. Shearing a trio of sheep could cost $30 and the wool could end up being worth nothing if it wasn’t cared for appropriately while the sheep was wearing it! I knew I wasn’t ready for that, so I found the breed “Katahdin.”

These lovely hair sheep lose their coat every spring. During the summer, their coat is coarse and short to repel rain and keep them cool. In the winter, the grow in a soft, woolly coat up to three inches thick. Like wool sheep, this coat of hair repels moisture through an oil known as “lanolin.” This oil keeps the rain and snow from wetting them down too much, helping to keep them warm. The three inch deep hair then insulates them so well that snow doesn’t even melt off their backs!

Katahdin sheep are easy keepers: They eat grass and a few handfuls of grain and give you beautiful lambs in the spring with nary a single cry other than to ask “Where’s my snack?!” It’s a pretty darn exciting thing to walk up to the pasture on a cold February morning, still dark, with snow covering them ground to find your ewes lambing, unassisted, and cleaning off their newborns with their only worry being to dry off that little lamb and get it standing and eating. They are incredible creatures and wonderfully instinctive.

I provide my sheep with a shelter from the elements, but they aren’t often inclined to bother with it. On hot days, the sheep find a breezy, shady spot to pant for the afternoon. On raining days, they’ll be out eating grass in the pasture. When it’s snowing, they’ll be laying out there chewing their cud, entirely not bothered. Just about the only time they mind the weather is when the wind starts howling on the colder or wetter days. Then they’ll gratefully use the shelter.

They have full run of the pasture right now, but this winter, they will be confined to the front section to help the pasture heal. Once the grass starts growing, I’ll begin rotating them through the pasture, paddock by paddock. Rotating them around the pasture rather than giving them free reign to the entire area encourages them to eat more than just the “candy grass” and makes them eat a more rounded meal. Some grasses taste better than others, but has more sugar, while others have more nutrients and taste less delectable, so the sheep skip that on the first pass if they have access to the whole pasture.

In September, I take off the ram’s silly apron that prevents accidental lambs, and let him get down to business. In the past, Sam would have completed his duties in a few days and in February, I’d have lambs all on the ground in a week or two. This year, Cork is in charge. Being a young fella, we will see how he does with completely his duties. Hopefully, the lambs won’t be born too far into the spring, but again, Katahdins are good at what they do, so I don’t think there will be much of a problem.

During the months the ewes are in milk with their lambs, I feed alfalfa pellets to give them the necessary protein they need to stay in good condition while caring for the hungry babies. Once the lambs are gone or grown and the cold sets in, out comes the real good stuff, the grain! Sheep go crazy for grain! They will trip over each other to get to the grain bucket and potentially take out the food-lady to get their share! The sheep get a few cups of grain per day to help them stay warm through the cold winter nights and give them the extra calories through the duration of their pregnancy.

Once the lambs are born, I give them a few weeks to build up their strength before I manhandle them too much. But once they are found strong and healthy, the boys go from being rams, to being “wethers,” meaning they don’t get to keep their testicles, which lead to meat having quite a bit of flavor. The lambs grow to about 9 months old, and the ewe lambs are kept behind with their mothers and the wethers head to the butcher. Sheep are considered “lambs” until they are one year old. So when you see “lamb” for sale at the store, it’s not a little baby they slaughtered, it’s a sheep who is often 75% full grown, but just under a year.

The sheep on the farm here at WPP get to stay with their mothers until the day they go to the butcher. I allow the ewes to decide when to wean their lambs. For the most part, the ewes get tired of being thrown around when their nearly full grown lambs head butt their udders in an instinctual effort to encourage more milk production. I’ve seen ewes with their back legs up off the ground from getting head butted so hard! The mothers then usually call it a day and stomp off!

While I still might see 9 month old lambs nursing from time to time, it becomes pretty infrequent by that point. Other producers may only let their lambs nurse up to 3 months, sometimes 4 months before they separate the lambs from the ewes. I find Katahdins don’t need the separation and it’s hard to see them go through that process unnecessarily, so I don’t do it. These sheep might lose some condition and be a bit bony by the middle of summer, but they gain it all back before winter so they stay nice and warm with some fat covering.

So there you have it, raising sheep in a nut shell. There’s always so much more to sheep than meets the eye! My sheep are shy at first, but they know a bucket of grain when they see one and will run to even a stranger, though wary at first. My sheep truly know my voice and come when I call out “come on sheep!” They are eager to be near me and see what treat I may have brought them. It’s such a calming experience to spend time with the sheep. They come to nuzzle me and get a gentle scratch behind the ears or under the chin. The best moments are when Cindy, my matriarch ewe, sways back and forth as I scratch her back. Even sheep love a nice back massage!

Pasture Passion…It’s Not What You’d Expect

I finished herding the last few chickens into their coop, shutting the door and turning off their nightlight. Who knew chickens were so afraid of the dark? Rightly so with all the predators out there! I left the coop to check on my flerd of cattle and sheep and locate Abel as he made his run around the pasture. Before I had time to give Fawn a chin scratch, thick thuds erupted from within the flerd.

It’s an unmistakable sound. I knew even without seeing it that it was the sound of two hard headed sheep having a ramming match. This was a new development though. I found Cindy and Larry squaring up. Ears back, chins down. Another thud. Cindy backed up to hit him again, but suddenly Cork joined the fight! Hitting Larry from off to the right, Cork made a soft hit, Larry defending his space. Larry backed off and attempted to find cover from this unfair fight. Cindy gave him a moment, but Cork wanted his turn.

Cork got in another ramming and backed up to go again. The rest of the sheep were watching idly while the cattle ignored all of the scuffling happening nearby. It seemed that the more violent the three of them became, the closer the group huddled together. Cork was about to make another run towards Larry when Yin gently stepped forward in front of him. She rubbed her face against his and pawed at the air. It seemed she had decided Cork should leave this fight to the Matriarch, Cindy. Cork gave in to her request, but rested his head on her back and stared at Larry.

Cindy had given Larry enough of a reprieve and forced him to square up again. Again and again they went head to head, blow after blow. For a little guy, half Cindy’s weight, he sure could hold his own! This was the little scrappy fella who had picked a fight with Sam the Ram though too, so he wasn’t exactly a stranger to unfair fights! And Sam was a good three times his size, four times when he was packing the summer weight.

I watched Cindy and Larry continue to square up while the sheep appeared to grow bored with the two of them. I glanced over at Fawn who was getting awfully close to one of the young ewes, Cindy’s spring lamb, Greta. I lifted an eyebrow with interest and waited. Sure enough, Fawn leaped on Freya’s back, alarming Greta to the point that she galloped away. Fawn fell away and acted like nothing had happened.

With that final hurrah, I decided I’d watched enough of this circus for one night and called Abel to leave. Abel, always excited to move onto the next fun activity, came tearing across the pasture, completely oblivious to the chaos that the fall breeding season had brought into the pasture.

Hair Sheep-The beginning

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A few years ago, I picked up a guide to raising sheep. I go with Storey’s guide books every time. They are a beginner’s crash course on your animal of choosing. I own ones for rabbits, cattle, pigs, and chickens too. I own one for dairy goats, but goats are still just far too good at getting out and causing trouble for me to head down that road just yet. I always pick up at least one book about the animal I’m looking to start raising before I get that animal. I need to know what I’m in for!

So I got this book on sheep. It took me a little while before I really figured out the direction I wanted to go and made that leap though. I spent some time yearning, some time online researching breeds, learning about what they needed to thrive, and yearning some more. I then spent weeks searching for the perfect sheep.

Finally, I found Cindy and her two lambs, Tippy and Fawn. I drove all that way out to Elizabethtown in the middle of the countryside and found Cindy with her adorable little twins. Of course, I knew I wanted her as soon as I saw her. After getting some background info on her and learning more about her and her little ones, the couple loaded the trio into the back of my truck. Nervously, I ventured back towards home. As I drove, I nearly watched the shadows of those three sheep more than the road! I attempted to stop gently and start rolling slowly, but it seemed they were more than able to keep themselves upright regardless of my sometimes necessary less careful stops.

Fawn, Tippy, and Cindy

Having three living creatures with free reign of the back of your pick-up truck is a nerve-wracking experience. I could hear their hooves stomping on the bed of the truck as I followed the winding country roads towards their new home. They shuffled around, attempting to understand the predicament that they suddenly found themselves in, having gone from a comfortable straw-filled barn to a loosely hay-covered truck bed.

After nearly two hours, I arrived home in the dark of a cool spring evening. It took two people to get Cindy into the truck and now I was alone with three sheep. I never do think about this portion of things. Suddenly flustered, I simply stared at my three new beautiful sheep. Eventually, I figured I could likely set up a ramp on my tailgate and with a halter on Cindy, walk her down and then take the lambs out and they would follow her. Now, normally, this sort of thing never works out quite like that for me. I set up something that seems perfectly logical and the animals give me the middle hoof and do anything that seems to be in complete opposition to my plans.

It went okay this time! The lambs didn’t run off, Cindy didn’t leap away and break a leg. Getting Cindy and her lambs from the driveway to the field was a different story. Cindy wasn’t used to wearing a halter or being told where to go by means of a rope attached to her face. I’d never lead a sheep anywhere, ever. I pulled, I pushed, I cried with frustration and concern that I might be hurting her. Inch by inch, we worked our way down to the field before I could finally shove her through the gate.

With that tiresome bit finished, I took the halter off of Cindy, made sure she had some hay and grain and fresh water. I watched them for a moment with a tired smile before reluctantly retreating back to my truck to drive myself home. My first night with sheep. There’s a sigh that fits the end of a successful day of farming. When the farmer can finally stop holding her breath for something to go wrong or something to go right at last, and take that big, deep, slow breath in to let it back out with a mixture of relief, pride, and hopeful satisfaction.