A Beginners Guide to Sheep & Lamb Farming
Updated: Nov 7
Lamb, Mutton, Sheep or All of the Above? There's a lot to think about when starting a new farming endeavor.
Let's get basic, a lamb is simply a baby sheep. But the terminology surrounding farmers — or, more accurately, shepherds — that raise and sell lamb versus shepherds that raise sheep can be confusing.
Most sheep operations -- whether they are raising wool sheep, dairy sheep or ‘hair’ sheep (sheep breeds that don’t grow a wool coat) only for meat -- market their yearly lamb production as an essential part of their annual sales.
Lamb meat is the most high-value and in-demand meat product in a sheep operation.
Lamb Versus Mutton
Lamb and mutton are simply two ways of characterizing sheep carcasses depending on the animal’s
age at the time of slaughter.
Lamb is the meat of a young sheep less than 12 months of age. Mutton is the meat of a sheep older than one year. Yearling mutton is meat from sheep between one and two years old.
The older the sheep is at the time of slaughter, the strong, more intense flavor the meat has. Most consumers don’t care for the taste of mutton, finding it too gamey and the meat tough. It is dark red, with a fat layer. Mutton, when consumed, is usually used in stews and is more prevalent in Middle Eastern and European cuisine.
On the other hand, Lamb is favored for its sweet, mild flavor and fine-grained tender texture and many lamb cuts — leg of lamb, lamb shoulder — are used in famous high cuisine dishes. In addition, lamb doesn’t have much fat. Lamb is the preferred way to consume sheep meat in the United States.
In a live sheep, age can be determined by checking its front teeth. A lamb less than a year old have eight milk teeth on its lower jaw. A yearling sheep, often called a “hogget” in traditional sheep-raising countries like the U.K. and New Zealand, will have cut its first pair of permanent teeth. A 2-year-old sheep will have produced its second pair of permanent teeth and are typically called “two-tooth” sheep.
Other important definitions in sheep-rearing include:
Ewe — A female sheep. A young female lamb is called a ewe lamb.
Ram — A male sheep. A young male sheep is called a ram lamb.
Wether — A castrated male sheep. They are more docile than rams when mature and are used for wool production.
Lambskin — The hide from a slaughtered lamb with the fur intact. Lambskin is very soft and is used to make gloves, belts, purses, and many more accessory items. When cured into leather, lambskin becomes lamb leather and is preferred for its soft text and smooth quality.
Sheepskin — The same as the hide from a lamb simply from an animal a year or older. Like the meat, sheepskin tends to be of rougher texture than lambskin and is typically used for making shoes or book covers. Sheep leather is cured from sheepskin.
Marketing Lamb (or Sheep) Meat
In past years there has been very little demand for mutton in the U.S., and lamb sales in large markets have been declining for many years. The current per capita consumption for lamb meat is less than one-half pound per person per year and many American’s have never even tasted lamb.
However, there has been an increase in interest in lamb meat. Depending on your sheep-raising goals, lamb sales can be a successful way to augment your sheep production. And selling to specialty markets with a high demand for lamb or selling direct to consumers or to chefs in your community are all ways to make a profit with your sheep.
If the primary purpose of the sheep flock is for wool or dairy, then obviously, the lamb is a secondary income stream that can help make the primary purpose of the flock more profitable. In addition, many small farmers have found that a flock of sheep can be very useful in regenerating grazing pasture-land and often use them in a diversified pasture management scheme. If pasture and soil restoration is the primary goal, those farmers typically tend to raise hair sheep — breeds like Katahdin or St. Croix — that don’t require annual shearing.
When it comes time to selling the lamb, there are several options. There is strong demand for lamb in ethnic populations centered around cultural holidays like Greek or Eastern Easter, Passover, Christmas, and Ramadan if direct marketing. Lamb is the customary meat for many Christian, Jewish and Muslim traditions.
Chefs are another potential outlet for lamb meat. However, the lamb must be slaughtered in a U.S.D.A. inspected and authorized facility to sell to a chef or a wholesale outlet like a grocery store.
Direct-market farmers may prefer to sell lamb “on the hoof,” having the consumer pay them for the hanging weight and pay the slaughter and processing fees directly to the local butcher shop that processes the lamb. Another outlet for lamb meat is online sales, customized and shipped “butcher boxes” of specialty meats are growing in popularity and allow small-scale farmers to tap into market demand beyond their region.
Some farmers will send their recently weaned lambs at auction as “feeder lambs.” Feeder lambs are usually purchased by feedlots or grazing operations to finish the animal for a short period before slaughter time.
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Georgie Smith, known in her community as “Farmer Georgie,” is a fourth-generation farmer and journalist living on her family’s historic farm on a Pacific Northwest island. She ran her own small farm for more than 20 years. These days, when she’s not herding chickens, fixing the antique tractor (again) or growing heirloom dry beans, Georgie writes about farming. Georgie is passionate about supporting healthy, equitable and sustainable food production and thriving family farms.