Lamb processing, producer management highlight annual sheep, goat meeting

Teresa Clark
for The Fence Post
University of Nebraska-Lincoln Meat Specialist Dennis Burson shows producers how to trim fat off the lamb carcass.
Photo by Teresa Clark |

Producers learned first hand how to process a market lamb during the Nebraska Sheep and Goat Producers annual meeting in Mitchell. Dennis Burson, University of Nebraska-Lincoln meats specialist, was on hand to show producers how to process a lamb into steaks, chops and the French leg.

Burson uses “The Meat Buyers Guide” as a reference, which basically shows institutional meat standard specifications for making cuts. “When you are cutting carcasses, it is important to learn where all the muscles and bones are,” he explains. “Anatomy is important.”

During the lamb cutting demonstration, Burson showed producers the growth plate, and explained that as the lamb gets older, the plate will fuse together. Meat processors can examine the growth plate to determine how old the lamb is.

The meat specialist showed producers where the most value comes from in the lamb carcass. The lamb he used in the demonstration weighed 126 pounds live weight. The carcass weight was approximately 70 pounds. About 25 percent of the carcass value was in the leg of lamb. Nearly 49 percent of the carcass value came from the leg, loin, rack and square cut shoulder, he said.

In the current market, Burson said it is attractive to sell retailers bone-in meat cuts. “They can trim down these bone-in cuts to make some very attractive roasts for consumers,” he said.

Producers asked Burson if there was any benefit to aging lamb. “Aging lamb can have some benefit,” he said. “But, it should be aged only seven to 10 days at the most. Lamb is more tender naturally, than beef. However, lamb fat can be subject to more rancidity, so it shouldn’t be aged very long. It can also lose some of the carcass weight by aging it. I have seen lamb lose 10 percent or more carcass weight because it is sitting in the air,” he said.

Managing sheep on cover crops

Brock and Heidi Terrell of Hay Springs, Neb., fell into the sheep business about five years ago. During the 2012 drought, the Terrells had some corn blow down, and kernels were lying on the ground all over the field. Wondering how they could utilize it, they ran across someone looking for a cheaper feed source for his 700 ewes, other than paying $400 for alfalfa. The ewes grazed all the kernels of corn, but when the Terrell’s tried to send the sheep back to the rancher, they found out the sheep were basically without a home. So Terrell made an offer and bought the ewes, guard dogs, and sheep wagons in a package deal.

Since then, Terrell has experimented with ways to run cattle and sheep together, and calve and lamb in sync with nature, using holistic management practices. “It is all a matter of putting animals in the right place at the right time,” he said. “We have found ways to winter the livestock on crop residue and cover crops.” The Terrells have used cover crops as preventive planting when the field is too wet to plant, or to replace hailed or damaged cash crops.

It also allows them to stay flexible. “We can destock the sheep or increase our numbers whenever we need to,” he said. “We also have some flexibility in the different species classes, whether it is stocker-feeder, ewe lambs, pairs, or dry cows or ewes.”

“The economics of it is we get good feed value, which we feel is enough to cover the cost of seed, and we don’t have to start a feed truck,” he said. “It allows the animals to graze naturally.”

Milking 600 ewes and raising 1,000 bum lambs

Bill Halligan of Bushnell, Neb., told producers about his business milking 600 ewes twice a day, and raising 1,000 bum lambs. Halligan purchased breeds of ewes known for their milking ability for his sheep dairy. “We feed a lot of hay, corn silage and grain to keep them milking well,” he said. “We don’t have a dairy sheep nutritionist, but we consult with a dairy cow nutritionist.

The milk produced at the dairy is shipped to California, and used to make a specialty yogurt. Sheep milk is much more concentrated, Halligan said, and they only sell it to certified creameries. They have a grade A dairy, so they are inspected. All the ewes are milked, and none of them raise lambs, he said. The lambs are taken from the ewes at birth, started on colostrum, and moved over to milk. Halligan has several Jersey cows that provide milk for the lambs through a gravity flow system. This system has to be serviced daily, and cleaned thoroughly at least every three to four days. “We use Jersey milk because it has a higher fat content,” he said. “I don’t think it would work as well if we had Holsteins.”

Milk is provided for the lambs whenever they are hungry. “We control intake by always having feed in front of them,” he said. “They don’t overeat because they never run out of feed.”

Halligan shared the Spooner Agricultural Research Center at the University of Wisconsin-Madison recommendations for raising lambs. Researchers at the university looked into how to raise bum lambs, and based on their findings, developed a management program. Halligan was able to implement and successfully use this program on his sheep dairy operation.

During the annual meeting, producers also heard from Angus McColl of Yocum-McColl Testing Labs in Denver, about how the value of wool is determined. He showed producers pictures of equipment he has at his lab, and how he uses it to evaluate wool.

Producers were also treated to tours of the Virgil Hagel Farm near Bayard, Neb., where producers viewed his commercial goat operation; Mark Dauby in Bayard, who has a commercial white face ewe flock; and Scott Schaneman of Minatare, Neb., with a commercial white face ewe flock, and a feed to finish operation. The last stop on the tour was the Ivan Rush farm west of Scottsbluff, Neb., where producers viewed a commercial black face ewe operation.

— Teresa Clark is a freelance livestock journalist from western Nebraska. She can be reached by email at