What is Grass Fed Lamb?

In short grass fed lamb is…Sheep lambing on pastures in sync with nature.  The five month gestation period starts in December matching the ewes’ most fertile window as the shortest day of the year approaches.  This means lambing mid-may in Missouri when the energy profile of the forage matches the nutritional requirements of the ewe.  The baby lambs grow up and romp on pasture all summer matching the natural cycles of native wildlife.

Here’s why we started with grass fed lamb….

1) Family friendly

Raising our kids on a farm has always been a dream.  We both recall the days on our family farms, the freedom and lessons learned.  The hours playing in the dirt or tromping through the woods.  The fish fries, bonfires, or camping out viewing the open skies.  When starting our farm our top priority was to create something that the kids can take part in?

Raising sheep on pasture seemed to be the ticket. No chemicals required and once the permanent paddocks and watering system are set up the weekly time investment is minimal. Paddock planning can be set up a week in advance with the moves scheduled around family activities. The kids can even take part in the handling as the ewe’s are not aggressive and can only do so much damage weighing in at 120 pounds.

As Luke says…we cut brush, drive posts, run wire, trench water lines, move fences, fill minerals, feed dogs, unroll hay…….. “I’m tired, I need to sit down and rest, Dad, sheep are hard work!” We will never forget the day on a paddock move where Luke got to stand on the fence line as the sheep rushed around him into the new pasture.  For months he had wanted to touch a sheep and that day all his efforts paid off.  He was gleaming with pride telling the story in the 3 year old room at daycare the following day. 

2) Small Acreage

Starting a farming operation usually begins with a small plot of land due to the capital investment to get started. This has the added benefit of giving the aspiring new farmer the chance to get good on a small scale before making much larger mistakes.  One of the first decisions made is how to use the forage that is being grown.  And I will give you one hint, it is not to go out and buy a $30,000 lawn mower, at least not one made out of steel.

In Missouri the first thought is usually to get into the cattle business.  My suggestion is to proceed with caution as they are big animals that need a lot of forage to maintain. Our county average is one 1,000 pound cow per 4 acres while feeding supplemental hay 4 to 5 months out of the year during the non growing season. The math on our 135 acres would be 32 momma cows, weaning one calf per year, and approximately weaning half her body weight.  So at peak production the weaned weight would be 16,000 pounds.

The reason we chose sheep is because they are much more efficient converters of forage.  As a smaller animal approximately 6 ewes can graze across the land for every cow.  And they wean two lambs, approximately their body weight every year.  The math for our 135 acres comes out to 192 ewes with an annual weaned weight of 19,200 pounds. Then to sweeten the deal at the sale barn price per pound of lamb compared to a weaned calf usually ranges between 40 to 100% more.

3) Grass Fed Lamb Forage Use

Being the new guys in the farming community, access to a picturesque pasture that goes for the highest price in the county was out of the question.  In our case we are starting with worn out converted row crop ground that thrives at growing weeds.  In the sheep world these so-called weeds are better referred to as forbs.

A sheep’s preferred diet is a 50/50 mix of forbs/woody sprouts and grasses, and no grain.  This preference is a perfect match to converting row crop ground to pasture. Natures cycle to pasture starts with weeds (forbs in the sheep world),  then annual grasses, and finally perennial grasses. Some treats to a sheep include multiflora rose, autumn olive sprouts, cockleburs, and waterhemp or pigweeds.

When we look to expand our operation and service more customers the path to least resistance will be idle land.  Either worn out farm ground, hay ground that doesn’t produce, or ground where the brush has encroached. Sheep fit the bill to use the forage succession and start the natural progression back to productive pastures.

4) Soil Fertility

Growing mono-culture crops on rotation devoid the soil of all biological activity.  The inputs of fertilizers, herbicides, fungicides, and insecticides nuke nature’s processes.  Earthworms are killed and soil is left compacted leaving the rainfall to run off the landscape. The runoff carries those inputs along with topsoil down stream causing droughts in as little as two weeks during the summer months.

Our process to wean the land off all the artificial inputs started with turkey litter, lime, and cover crops. This jump-starts the biological processes while mining the nutrients in the soil to the surface layer. The cover crops allow water to collect and penetrate the soil profile, cover the soil, decay in place, and feed the microbes.

The next step in nature’s succession plan is to add in a ruminant animal that can use the forage produced and cycle the nutrients. When moved across the landscape they have an impact for a short duration while leaving the area to rest and recover before regrazing.  Our flock of 80 ewes have the added benefit of fertilizing the pasture as they move across the landscape.  They drop out their back ends approximately 350 lbs of manure (fertilizer) per day or 60 tons per year.  Spread out over our 135 acres, that is a great start to cut synthetic inputs.

Sheep have the added benefit of moving nutrients to high ground.  As a prey animal low on the food chain they prefer to camp on the high points on the pasture.  The added visibility allows them to protect the flock from predators.  While giving us the management benefit of concentrating manure and nutrients right where they need to land.

The manure gets inhaled by the soil microbes and disappears from the landscape in the matter of days.  There are no foul odors left and the grasses grow back taller, thicker and a dark green color. Since our sheep aren’t dewormed, their manure deposited on the landscape is a delicacy for all the critters living below the ground.

5) Winter Feed

One of the largest outlays of capital and determinants of cash flow in a livestock operation is the amount of winter feed.  The machinery list to collect, haul, store, and return it at the time of feeding can be daunting for a new farmer.  The best case scenario is to avoid all the hassle.

Hair sheep are the perfect ruminant animal.  They prefer to forage across the landscape and only need support on the worst winter days.  If the forage gets covered in an icecap where they can’t get through they will appreciate a free meal.

I recall the first snow storm that rolled through feeling sorry for the flock of sheep. I got up early, and after an hour of effort and almost getting my four wheel drive truck stuck had a perfect windrow of hay unrolled for our flock. Looking back I had to look comical to the flock as they continued foraging in the draws for the tender green shoots protected by the snow cover.  I guess my efforts weren’t completely lost as they proceeded to use the hay as a mattress later in the day.

 6) Freezer Space

Who has a 20 cubic foot freezer in their garage for bulk grass fed meat purchases? 

Industrial agriculture has trained us as consumers that we can get what we want when we want it, convenience is a great thing.  Not only do we not have to plan out our meals for the week they have us covered months down the road.  We show up, get what we want, and often enjoy the weekly discount flier on overstock items.

Well we weren’t much different than the average consumer and wouldn’t even begin to know what the plan looks like to haul a whole cow home.  500 pounds of beef, what to do when we find out that we don’t have enough freezer space to store the entire haul. 

The advantage with processing a grass fed lamb is the final product takes up no more space than the top of a conventional refrigerator freezer. With a little organization that spare fridge in the garage could handle the receipt of a grass fed lamb. Plus whole carcasses are ideal for special events throughout the year without having to invite the whole town.

7) Capital Investment

Bootstrapping a farm operation together is no easy task. You have heard story after story of the next generation not being able to afford the capital investment to get off the ground. Or the multimillionaire farmer without a $20 bill in his wallet. Even with help from the local USDA office and federal EQIP programs for beginning farmers the struggle is real. Appreciating assets (grass fed animals) have to cover the costs of infrastructure to get the operation off the ground.

This is where as a ruminant animal hair sheep on pasture birthing in cycle with nature have an unfair advantage.  Sure a 5-wire high tensile electric perimeter fence and watering system is critical. But sheep move across the pastures with portable infrastructure; polywire, step in posts, and a mobile mineral feeder. No barns necessary, while handling facilities erected out of cattle panels and t-posts suffice.  A light duty truck and trailer haul the annual harvest to town. 

The equipment to preserve, store, and move winter feed to the field can run in the hundreds of thousands to get started.  Hair sheep will only need hay during an ice storm avoiding all the equipment.  Otherwise they prefer to forage for their feed on what grows across the landscape.

The biggest concern and cost for a grass fed lamb operation is protection. Hair sheep are at the bottom of the food chain with no defense to the natural predators across North America.  Thus the cost of a working guard dog is critical to the survival of a sheep flock. Guard dogs are not pets and must come from working parents and there is a cost associated to get the appropriate genetics and training.

8) Cash Flow

If capital outlays prevent the family farm from getting started then cash flow will cause it to go bankrupt. Whether it is row crops, livestock, or confined animal feed operations (CAFO) the money goes out months if not years before it comes back in.  In our case the customer or sale barn doesn’t provide any cash up front to the farmer.  After successful breeding, birthing, finishing, butchering, then finally the retail sale is possible.

For us to get started and stay in business we needed an enterprise that could turn cash.  Sheep fit the bill.  We could buy ewe’s (momma sheep), breed, birth, and grow out with a return on cash within 12 months.  Sheep have a 5 month gestation cycle and wean their body weight every year. This will allow us to grow our flock, provide nutrient dense meat to our customers, and keep the banker happy as we expand into other enterprises.

Have you experienced grass fed lamb?

Taste the Difference!

Derek and Catherine, Grace’s Grass Fed

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