Three and a half years ago, when we embarked on our sheep adventure, neither of us had much experience eating lamb, nor had we ever processed a sheep before. As we were disinclined to pay $75+ per lamb for someone else to slaughter and butcher our sheep for us, we rolled up our sleeves, and jumped in. Our first few took multiple days for us to arrive at less than perfect results, but the learning experience was invaluable and the meat tasted good – especially as I learned to cook it!
We started out with a cheap hand saw, inadequate knives, and a hand-crank meat grinder, watching Youtube videos during the process to figure out the cuts one gets from sheep, and how to break it down. It was a slow and cumbersome process and each carcass was overwhelming. With practice, our slaughter time has gone from more than an hour per sheep to less than 1/2 hour, and it only takes us a couple hours to butcher and package the meat from one lamb. Asking questions of the Yemeni families that come to our farm to harvest the lambs they purchase from us has also helped our knowledge, as they have a very efficient process, plus they use more parts of the lamb than we Americans are accustomed to, so that has been interesting!
My cousin, who has also been learning to butcher lamb, discovered and gifted us Adam Danforth’s book “Butchering Poultry, Rabbit, Lamb, Goat, Pork: The Comprehensive Photographic Guide to Humane Slaughtering and Butchery” and that was a game-changer for us. We learned better techniques for skinning, parameters for chilling and aging a carcass, a wide variety of cut options, and best packaging and freezing methods. I still reference The Book every time, but have become more familiar with how lambs are put together, and how I like to prepare them for our table.
As opportunity has presented, we’ve acquired a meat bandsaw, better knives(and are learning how to sharpen them!) and a motorized meat grinder. Sourcing affordable tools was crucial, as our budget was limited. Dan took his time and perused auction websites to find high-quality second-hand equipment. His favorite sites were Auctions International and NY HiBid Auctions, where he found many high-quality tools at rock-bottom prices. PCI Auctions was a good source for used restaurant equipment. We purchased knives and packaging materials from Webstaurant Store, and some of our other supplies from The Sausage Maker in Buffalo, NY.
When we put meat in our own freezer, it typically ends up being from the animals that have no value on the wider market – older ewes. This year we had six ewes that were not acceptable to keep in our flock for breeding stock or to sell for pets. Two were completely insane, inciting chaos in the whole flock, and had not produced lambs up to Finnsheep standards for the past two years. Another had had no milk for her lambs. Still another had prolapsed at the end of her first pregnancy. There was an older ewe who was obviously poorly, not gaining condition properly and just seemed ‘off’ for the past year(she ended up having growths on her organs, so we didn’t keep her meat, either). The last just wasn’t a good producer, with a narrow frame(indicating low meat producing potential) and had only one small lamb last year. She also lost this year’s pregnancy – so she wasn’t one I’d want to sell as a good ewe to another shepherd. These are just some examples of why we cull some animals, and in my opinion the most humane treatment is to end their life as painlessly as possible. Their meat tends to have a firmer texture and bolder structure than that from a lamb less than 1 year old, but it tastes delicious, and we appreciate the larger cuts.
Each year, as we end up with more and more lamb and mutton in our freezer, I get better at preparing it. I have even come to the point where I prefer the meat of the ovine to that of the bovine. I’ve been experimenting with new recipes and have started replacing beef and pork in recipes with lamb. Merguez sausage is now a favorite. I used lamb instead of the pork in our favorite breakfast sausage recipe, and the results were delicious! Did you know ‘Shepherd’s Pie’ is better made with lamb? And beef burgers don’t even compare with succulent, flavorful lamb burgers. Ok, maybe it is just me that loves it this much, but at every meal of lamb I am glad we decided to get sheep when we started out.