Monday, January 4, 2016

In Praise of Mutton

I don’t know how many times I have told clients that not only do we sell lamb but we also sell hogget and mutton just to have them reject the mutton immediately even though the majority have never tasted it. Even fellow shepherds often do not consider mutton as a viable product line.  This article is my argument that older animals not only can provide high quality meat with a strong market but sale of mutton can bring in a good revenue stream and can contribute in a meaningful way to flock improvement.
To make sure all readers understand what I mean by these different meats from sheep, lamb is from an animal under one year of age, hogget is from an animal between a year and two years of age and mutton is from an animal over two years of age.
First I would like to discuss numbers.  A quick tally of all animals passing through Ontario sale barns shows that nearly 30% are mature sheep approximately 50,000 animals.  A recent article in the Toronto Star stated that Mr. Greek, a large Toronto butcher, processes close to 200 mutton animals a week.  If you extrapolate that to either the Canadian or American market you are talking a very large numbers. This is not a niche market but rather a mainstream market that seems to be forgotten. Consider if you could increase the revenue from one third of your flock. This is not potential income that should be dismissed.  
As populations within the world move and countries become  more diverse, we, as shepherds need to consider not only a diversified client base but also a client base that wants an expanded product line that includes mutton.  It is not only up to the individual shepherds but also up to marketing boards and industry organizations to proactively grasp the opportunity to develop and expand these markets for the benefit of producers. 
Industries often fail because they are very narrow in their focus.  For example, the movie industry suffered when television entered the market.  Their focus was narrowly aimed at the production of movies rather than a broader focus of entertainment.  Shepherds likewise can get stuck in the narrow focus of lamb production rather than looking at production of high quality food.  There are other product lines possible beyond that but that is for a different article.
In 2004, HRH the Prince of Wales launched Mutton Renaissance ( to re-establish the market for mutton on dinner tables in the United Kingdom.  The organization set production and processing standards to ensure the consumer had access to a quality product.  And I meant to say re-establish the market for mutton because this meat was a staple in households in the United Kingdom until quite recent times.  All you need to do is look at first class menus from passenger ocean liners from less than 100 years ago to see mutton commonly served.  This movement is a fine example of what we can do to improve both the reputation and subsequently the market and the revenue from mutton.
Our own operation is tiny by today’s flock size averages but we have always considered marketing mutton as part of our farm product line and revenue stream.  We have advertised, introduced the uninitiated and marketed our mutton with the same effort as we do our lamb.  As a result, we are able with very little effort sell all we produce.  We do ensure that the quality of our mutton is equivalent to the quality of our lamb. Mutton graces our own table more often than lamb and I can truthfully tell our clients that mutton will be a delicious addition to their menu. The revenue we get from mutton sales is much better than if we shipped these animals to the sale barn.
At the beginning of this article I mentioned that sale of mutton is integrated into our flock improvement plan.  If our market was exclusively for lamb, we would be doing the numbers game on maximizing the number of lambs we ship to market and would probably be keeping ewes for production that we currently are shipping for meat.  Because we have a good revenue stream for mutton, we have made our culling criteria more stringent allowing us to improve the quality of our breeding animals at a faster rate than if those ewes remained in our flock.  As time goes on our culling criteria has become more focussed.  Would some of our culls make good breeding stock in other flocks…. Probably but now we get more income from them as mutton.
So where do we go from here?  First shepherds need to look at production of mutton as a separate product line not as a discard.  The breed and marketing organizations need to expand their focus to include mutton, hogget and lamb and the industry needs to embrace entering the market in value added products with these meats.  If it has not already been defined, the production standards for the different consumer markets need to be identified and voluntary standards set to meet these markets. Shepherds need to be educated in ways to meet these standards. Processors need to be educated on the preferred methods of handling mutton. The consuming public needs to be re-educated about the quality and merits of mutton as a delicious alternative to their diet reversing the negative reputation of this meat.  At the same time the consuming public that already wants this meat should have improved access not only through private sales but also through mainstream markets.  When was the last time you saw mutton for sale in a mainstream grocery store?
My main goal for this article is to encourage shepherds to explore the opportunities with expanding into the mutton market and hopefully increase the revenue stream from a significant percentage of your flock. 

Laurie Maus
Hawk Hill Farm

Sunday, April 13, 2014

Buying direct from farmers - Consumer Training Modules - Talking about Grassfed

Over the last few years of dealing directly with clients, I realized how much the majority of consumers have been disconnected from where their food comes from.  Discussions about cuts and other meat buying terms are met with blank stares.  So I have decided to write a series of training modules that eventually will be used for a consumer training seminar that I will be giving in Ottawa later this summer. The seminar will be "How to buy meat directly from farmers" and cover topics such as sourcing from farmers, defining confusing terminology, cut charts, ordering and pricing, what questions to ask and how to make the transaction "win win" for everyone. The time and date will be announced later this spring.

I have decided to start with a term that is often bandied about and equally often misinterpreted not only by the consumer but also by the farming newbies. That term is grassfed.  

Most think of grassfed in the literal translation, that is fed on grass ...which is true.  However raising grassfed livestock is both an art and a science that goes WELL beyond throwing livestock out on pasture and expecting to have marketable meat of any quality at the end.

First lets start with a discussion of cattle and sheep.  Consider their wild origins and how the original animals would have fed.  Wild species would travel in groups, constantly moving and eating a range of plants from grasses, legumes, broad leafed plants and tree and bush browse.  They would rarely stay in the same place for long nor return to the same place in a year.  The area they would cover would be huge and the relative animal density would be low.

Now consider contemporary pasture management especially in eastern North Amerca.  Western rangeland is a bit different.  The relative animal density is high, the plant variety in their diet is quite limited and the grazing area is relatively small.  Unless well managed, animals could be subject to dietary imbalances, parasites overload and poor gains.  So dear consumer recognize that the term grassfed is not a guarantee of a healthy, well-raised animal.

 At its best meat from grassfed animals is rich, tender and flavourful.  At its worst, meat from grassfed animals is dry, coarse and tastes metallic.  One of the major differences to quality is finish, the balance of fat to muscle which blended leads to moist, tastely meat.  

Yes, I know that many of you want lean but I am here to tell you that you need fat for a number of reasons most of which is flavour.  When push comes to shove, the flavour is in the fat.  We have had clients demand lean ground.  We complied and then got complaints about how dry it was, how it fell apart and how bland it was.  Now I nod and give people what I know they will like.  If you are worried about calories, just cut down the amount you eat.

The other reason you need fat is to protect the meat and keep it moist.  A complete layer of fat is needed to protect the meat during the aging process.  If that fat is not present, the meat oxidizes, goes black and takes on a metallic flavour.    

You also need some marbling, the fat that is delicately threaded through the muscle to keep it moist during cooking and enhance the flavour.  The reason why KobĂ© beef is so prized is the level of marbling through the meat. Meat without any internal fat is dry and flavourless.

Now what has this got to do with grassfed?  It is extremely difficult to finish meat on grass alone at a young age.  Most cattle do not start to naturally develop marbling until they are over 2 years of age.  Most beef is processed before that time.  

The other issue is it is very difficult to finish meat on both spring and fall pastures.  It has to do with dry matter intake and other technical topics which are a whole lot more information that the average consumer needs  or is interested in.  Think of it this way.  If you had a diet of exclusively iceberg lettuce, how balanced would your diet be?  You could not eat enough iceberg lettuce to meet your nutritional needs because of the water content.  That is the same problem with high water level spring and fall pastures.OK this is a bit too simplified but you get the picture.

The final note about grassfed that strangely Canadian consumers forget about is winter.  No the animals will not be on pasture year round.  They do need to be fed during the winter.  Yes they can be fed grass during the winter in either hay or haylage.  They are still grass fed.

While our animals are predominately grass fed, we do supplement with grains during the periods of fast growth and heavy demand on the ewes and the lambs to avoid energy inbalance. We are working towards exclusively grassfed but not before we can manage our pastures in a way to meet all the nutrional needs of our animals without compromising their health.  

Now quickly I will touch on grassfed or pastured chickens.  First and foremost chickens are not exclusively herbivores.  They are omnivores.  They do need a balance of greens, grains, and critters to balance their diet.  Chickens out on pasture should still be predominately grain fed with pasture supplement.  So do not think that chickens get all their nutrition from pasture.  They do not.  And I would steer away from producers that claim their chickens are raised exclusively on pasture.  The resulting product will probably be thin and dry.  Talk to a butcher that has had to slaughter exclusively pastured chickens.  Our laying hens range free during the days from spring to fall.  I feed them nearly as much grain during that time as I do in the winter. Do their eggs taste different between winter and summer?  Absolutely.  The dietary additions during the ranging period change the flavour and quality of the eggs but it is not sufficient to maintain all the nutritional needs of the chickens.

Are their health reasons for buying grassfed meats?  Yes, there is data that shows the omega 3 fatty acid levels are higher in meats from animals raised on grass than those that are exclusively grain fed.  

I hope that this series will help the consumer that wants to buy direct from farmers.  An informed consumer will inprove the transaction for both parties.  

Let me know if there are topics you would like me to cover.  My next topic will be "that confusing cut chart".


Friday, February 28, 2014

Co-existing with Coyotes

I often wonder when people move in beside an airport and then complain about the noise from the planes.  Usually the next step is for them to petition to prevent expansion or even have the airport shut down. 

The same could be said when we put a farm with livestock into coyote territory and claim to have a coyote problem.  In truth the coyotes have human problem but laying blame doesn't get us anywhere.

Coyotes and humans both want the use of the same piece of property.  It is up to us to figure out a way to co-exist.  It is possible and more importantly it is desirable because despite what many think, coyotes serve a very valuable role in the ecosystem by cleaning up carrion and controlling rodents and other nuisance wildlife.

When we first started farming we were raising horses and never really felt threatened by coyotes.  Oh sure they were there but they didn't bother the horses.  Nothing like half a ton of annoyed mare to teach a wayward coyote youngster some respect.  I actually liked watching the coyotes pouncing on mice when I was raking hay. They didn't bother us and we didn't bother them.

Several years ago we started to raise sheep and my heart raced every time I heard a coyote sing.  I heard many shepherds talk about their problems with coyotes, the kills and efforts to eradicate them.  It sounded like an ever escalating arms war with no end in sight. 

Maybe it is my background as a biologist that make me think that there has to be a better way.  We have coyotes in this area.  There is no doubt about that.  We also wanted to raise sheep.  Therefore it was up to us to protect our sheep. 

All the evidence pointed to the use of guardian animals with guardian dogs being the most effective in protecting your flock.  So we got a Maremma pup.  As our flock expanded we got more dogs to the point now we run three Maremmas.  While I feel the dogs are effective they are not without their problems but that goes beyond this blog post and I have discussed some of the problems in a previous post.  All that being said, I would not have sheep without guardian dogs.

Next is fencing.  That is an ongoing battle with us as we convert out fencing from being horse proof to being sheep and coyote proof.  There are many manuals and articles out there on building proper coyote proof fencing.  The one recommendation that I have from experience is do it right the first time.  We have wasted more money doing a poor job two and three times rather than doing a good job once.  We do like the electric net fencing but like the permanent fencing you get what you pay for.

We started by bringing the sheep into an enclosure close to the barn every night.  Maybe that works for protecting the sheep from coyotes but it exposed them to high concentrations of parasites.  Shepherds talk about the two "Ps" as problems with sheep: parasites and predators.  While a sheep killed by a predator is dramatic and distressing, I truly believe that parasites have the greater economic impact on a flock.  We took a deep breath and left the sheep out in the pastures at night.  And no dead sheep!   We rotate our pastures on a regular basis and the pasture size is small enough that the dogs can easily patrol the area.  

There are other things we do that are just common sense though unfortunately not necessarily common practice.  We are very careful about how we handle our dead stock.  Dead lambs or chickens are buried deep and far from the main farming area.  Larger dead stock are removed from the property and taken to the dead stock dealer.  Placentas are removed from birth pens and either buried or permanently disposed of.  If required they are sealed and frozen until they can be removed permanently.   We never feed dead stock to our guardian dogs.  They are given large beef bones but never are given lamb or mutton bones.  We actually avoid any dog food that contains sheep.  That may be extreme but it doesn't make sense to avoid baiting coyotes and not do the same with our dogs.  Plus there are some major parasite reasons to avoid feeding sheep to our dogs.

We have used strobe lights.  I don't know if they are effective.  They are expensive, the sheep hang out around them like they are disco lights and the dogs usually eat them  At $90 a pop they are pretty expensive dog treats.

It also pays to get to know your neighbor (I am not convinced they are our enemy).  For example right now you might be hearing a lot of coyotes because it is breeding season.  Over the years we believe that the pack that uses the territory that includes our farm really are not interested in our sheep.  We have never had a kill and we are very careful to leave the existing pack alone.  First I do not want to fix something that is not broken.  Second I do not want to invite another pack into the area that may not be as live and let live with our flock.  Finally I do not want to trigger a reproduction boom to respond to diminished coyote population in an area with plentiful prey. A good place to start your research is CoyoteWatchCanada.

And that comes down to our final strategy.  We have intentionally left a lot of wild areas on our farm and wild corridors throughout the farm for wildlife to move.  This provides for habitat for natural prey species for coyotes.  If there are sufficient rodents, raccoons, skunks, berries etc for coyotes to eat they have no reason to go after our flock.  In general we wanted to make it easy for them to do the right thing and difficult to do the wrong thing.  Coyotes are not stupid.  They will not risk their life to get something to eat if there is something available that does not pose a risk.

In my opinion the biggest problems are found in areas where the only thing to eat is livestock.  All natural habitat and natural prey species have been been removed from an area.  I liken it to going into suburbia wastelands where the only place to eat is a burger joint.  If  only one restaurant is available, that is where you are going to eat.  Coyotes are the same.

If I go out and find a dead sheep am I going to change my tune.  Maybe, but our first reaction will be what did we do wrong and fix it.  I still think that we can co-exist with coyotes.


Thursday, October 17, 2013

Put Mutton Back on the Menu

It is not often that Prince Charles and I have the same goals but I am right on side with his campaign to put mutton back on the menu.   This tasty meat got a bad rap around WWII and never recovered.  My parents' generation ate stringy, overcooked mutton and passed their culinary prejudices on to my generation without any of us ever having gone through that experience.

Think about it.  The majority of North Americans only consider lamb.  That is like only eating veal.  It doesn't make sense with cattle nor does it make sense for sheep.

Let's talk terms.   A lamb is an animal up to one year of age, a hogget is an animal from one to two years of age and mutton is from an animal over two years of age.  A lamb will have a hanging weight of 30 to 60 lbs.  A hogget will have a hanging weight of 70-100 lbs depending on the breed with mutton being about the same range.  Cuts from each will be appropriate for the size of the animal.

For the first time this year we processed three adult ewes: two 6 year old Tunis ewes were made into ground meat and a three quarter Tunis hoggett was processed into chops and cubes.

And the verdict.  The shepherd's pie made out of the ground mutton was fabulous.  I would never consider making this dish with beef again.  There is a reason it is called shepherd's pie.  The chops from the hogget were indistinguishable from our lamb except for their size.   

We are starting to learn about how to process and cook mutton. It seems that mutton should be hung for at least two weeks.  That is going to be an education for our butcher as well.

The lambs are all weighed and we are ready to start processing. The first lot goes out next week with two more lots going out over November and December.  There will be some lagging into the new year that had a slow start.  

The weather is getting cooler.  It is time to start eating lamb, hogget and mutton.  With winter vegetables and a good glass of wine, it doesn't get any better.


Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Shoe-maker's kids

Most of us have heard the story of the shoe maker's kids who ended up going barefoot.  Well, it turns out that Bob and I are the shoe maker's kids when it comes to monitoring our nutrition.  

Over the years we have researched the nutritional requirements for our horses, sheep and chickens, analysed their feed and supplemented to balance the vitamin and mineral deficiencies in our feed.  Every year we ship hay samples out for analysis.  Not only do we analyse the macronutrients such as protein, we also analyse the micronutrients such as selenium, copper and zinc.

Because of the region where we live, that is eastern Ontario, where the soil is deficient in some of these minerals, not surprisingly our hay is deficient in copper and zinc and totally lacking in selenium.  So we carefully supplement for these deficiencies. And what about excess?  Iron levels in our soil and in our hay are through the roof.  We do not use commercial supplements for the horses because it is impossible to find one with no added iron.  For a number of years, we have custom blended our own mineral supplements for the horses.

Over the years we also have expanded out vegetable gardens and rely more on them for producing our food.  Our food production is not just a 100 mile diet, in most cases it is a 100 foot diet.  This year we plan to build two small greenhouses to allow us to extend our growing season well into the fall and start it earlier in the spring.  Our ultimate goal is to be as self sufficient as possible in our food production.

Now there are many of you out there that are cheering us on, what a great healthy, environmentally responsible diet.  Yes it is but.....  remember the hay analysis?  If our soil mineral balance and deficiencies result in deficiencies in our hay, why would we not expect the same to happen with the fruits and vegetables that grown on the same land?  And yes, after contacting Rob Wallbridge at SongBerry Farm, we can expect exactly the same deficiencies and inbalances in our veg and fruit.    A quick web search showed that mineral levels in vegetables varied greatly depending on location, irrigation,  etc.  Mineral balance is necessary not only for plant health but also for our health.

So, what do we do?  To begin with we are going to have our garden soil analysed and try to balance the minerals in the soil by additives such as kelp and fish meal.  I would love to do that on a macro scale for the whole farm but the reality it is less expensive to supplement our livestock than to supplement the soil.  The down side is the plants we are growing are probably not growing optimally.  However that is the economic reality.

When I first had horses, I got caught in the popular trend to supplement them with a myriad of products to improve their health.  Like with so many horse products, these supplements were expensive.  Our feed costs were high and the horses did not seem to be benefiting in any obvious way.  Then we started to analyse their diet through an on-line feed analysis Feed-XL (which by the way I can highly recommend).  It turns out we were overfeeding the horses and under nourishing them.  We were able to cut back our feed costs by hundreds of dollars a horse and still have them in great shape.  So the lesson learned is we are not going to have the same knee jerk reaction to our own nutrition by automatically taking a range of supplements.

The next step is to talk to our doctors and get referred to a nutritionist.  If it is possible to have our diet and us analysed and see if we do have inbalances then we will address them on an individual basis.

The net result should be healthier us... and the shoe maker's kids will wear shoes. That is the plan anyways.  Stay tuned.


Sunday, March 31, 2013

Spring, wherefore art thou?

When I look out my office window, all I see are fields of white.  It is the tail end of March and we still have lots of snow left on the ground. Unlike last year when we were in T-shirts and some neighbours were getting their fields ready to plant, I am still sporting a winter coat in the evenings and wearing insulated boots.  

Yes, the red-winged blackbirds and robins are back but I am sure that all of them are checking their travel itineraries and wondering what went terribly wrong.  We just sheared the sheep and I think a couple of them have the OSPCA on speed dial.

The sap is running... sort of.   We are having on and off again runs where one day it runs like crazy and the next two to three we get nothing at all. We only tap a few trees around the yard to produce enough for our use.  We are hoping to get about 8 litres of syrup and we are well on our way to producing that.  This year we are trying a turkey fryer to boil down sap and then we finish it off and bottle it in the house. This summer I hope to put up a little three sided shed that I can put a wood stove in to boil sap down outside the house.

This spring brought a new Maremma pup to the farm. His name is ZeusHe is about 4 months old now and is a pen with two 8 month old lambs.  Unfortunately they do not have the temperament to correct his puppy nips so we will be putting him in with the rams today. They will teach him what behaviour is acceptable and what is not.  He also is getting introduced to our other dogs: first Mayla and later Titan. Mayla, is on reduced duties due to her multiple dysplasias.  Zeus was purchased to replace Mayla when we are no longer able to keep her comfortable. I still have a hard time believing a breeder could sign a health guarantee for Mayla and then totally dishonour their guarantee. This is definitely a case of buyer beware.

Shearing the sheep revealed developing udders.  Lambing starts in about 5 weeks.  There is lots to do before then.  I just hope the fields start drying up and growing so we can put the ewes out soon after the lambs are born.  

We just set up an incubator with 31 Partridge Chantecler eggs.  We have lots of orders for chicks and mature birds so we will be filling the incubator at least twice this spring.  

The day lilies have started to sprout.  Hmmm, maybe spring is not too far behind,