Today marked the first day in my three years as a shepherd of Shetland sheep that we had a lamb killed to meet local culinary interests. The growing demand for lamb in our local area, the expense of feeding the animals, and the ever present debt warranted the right of passage that mostly every sheep farmer must go through. It isn’t easy; butchering is an emotional experience.
I spent a week mentally preparing for the date, which I left off the calendar but at the forefront of my mind. Shetland sheep have a way of working their way into your heart and some, more than others, nestle right into our good graces and affections. Those lambs/sheep will live out their days on the farm as fibre pets, while others ultimately go to the table. One has to remember that a farmer spends countless hours, around the clock, toiling away at tasks that provide protection for his animals, healthy nutrition for their diets, and safety within their free movement pens only to have the journey with his animals culminate in harvesting the animal.
There are no jokes to be made (bbq this and stove top that) but there is an immense amount of respect that one must show to the animal before and after the task is done. I sit here writing this next to the wood stove, with the sheepskin I am tawing drying beside me on a rack, thankful that the lamb will provide meat for hungry families and a sheepskin for a lovely throw or carpet. Every part of the animal has to be used, even the entrails. Agrarian societies have made use of every part of harvested animals since time immemorial. Although we now wear mass produced clothing that we buy in clothing stores and animal skin clothing items seldomly find their way onto our backs, we feel it is important to honor the animal that gave his/her life. I think this sentiment is echoed across many cultures and especially farming communities.
Given that I wouldn’t be killing the animal but helping to dress it and prepare it for the meat-cutter, I contacted a friend of the family who agreed to ethically kill the ram lamb. I didn’t want to hire anyone with a bloodthirst or inexperience as I wanted it to be swift. I am thankful to have had the help of this individual who was very calm and collected throughout the whole process. I believe this is a must. The animal must be calm before it meets it’s fate.
Culling is a big concern for a sheep farmer. In the event that sheep can’t be rehomed as fiber pets or sold as breeding stock, the sheep with less desirable traits find their way to the freezer in small farm flocks. Bad horns, bad feet, bad mouths, and slow gains make for tough decisions. This year, I made every effort to sell my ram lambs from the past two years into breeding programs in other Shetland flocks. Out of 7 rams, two were sold to breeders with Shetland sheep flocks, two will be wethered (castrated) and remain in the flock as fiber pets, one has gone to the freezer, and the fate of the last two is undetermined.
Make no mistake, our Shetland sheep are bred primarily for the purpose of meeting the growing demand for wool, either raw or cleaned and scoured. However, Shetland sheep are also known for very tasty meat. Although they are small-boned and a primitive breed, they have a high meat to bone ratio even though they dress out smaller than commercial breeds. Case in point, the quizzical look on the meat-cutters face assured me he hadn’t cut the smaller bodied Shetland lamb before. Some other Shetland shepherds/shepherdesses have suggested that 12 months is not enough time for the slower growing Shetland sheep. It remains to be seen. If we end up harvesting our lambs after a year old, they will technically be called hogget up until 2 years old when the sheep becomes mutton if harvested.
Our plan is to provide the following individual cuts: lamb chops, rack of lamb, leg, shoulder, and ground lamb for the time being until we have more volume to sell a half or full lamb. With increasing demand, we will be increasing our supply for next year when we introduce a cross-breeding program.
Cuts are priced as follows for the time being until we have more readily available lamb and more quantity to sell:
- Chops – $10/lb
- Rack of lamb – $10/lb
- Ground lamb – $8/lb
- leg – $10/lb
- Neck/shoulder – $8/lb
Our sheep and lambs are fed hay and grass primarily. They do not receive oats or grain of any type. They do receive produce in season such as apples, pumpkins, lettuces, kale, and balsam fir trees as anti-helmintics to help with any worm load. Currently, we only de-worm in the Spring before the sheep go to pasture, which is a year ahead of butchering. They also receive sheep mineral blocks throughout the year as well to make up for any missing micronutrients.
Due to the relatively small size of Shetland lambs many Shetland sheep shepherds crossbreed to improve carcass yield. Supply of market lamb is limited until we start a cross-breeding program. We will most likely introduce a terminal sire to breed our Shetland ewes or a few commercial ewes to breed to one of our Shetland rams. At this point, we will be able to produce a faster-maturing lamb for meat purposes. We are considering the North Country Cheviot for our crossbreeding program.
Click, for more information on Shetland meat.