Do you have lambs available for Eid al-Adha?

Because demand for Eid is crazy busy, and we are super busy in summer, we no longer accept any appointments for on-farm slaughter during the week leading up to Eid. And, supply of lamb in summer is tight, most of our April lambs aren’t ready to go until fall or winter, and our yearling lambs are long since sold in spring. This year we are sold out of August and September lambs, and are already taking deposits for October lambs; so we have no availability for lambs for Eid in August. Sorry!

Can I choose the lamb I want for slaughter?

We are not able to offer the service of choosing one lamb to slaughter out of a group of lambs. Our lambs are sold by live weight range. If you want to arrange a visitor appointment to view our general operation, the quality of our animals and graze, and see lambs in certain live weight ranges to help you train your eye, we can accommodate this.

But, we don’t have a “lamb Walmart” shopping experience where buyers can view and choose a particular lamb from a group of confinement pens in a feedlot setting. (There is another operation in our area that offers this service, and it is a different market niche.) Our niche is pasture-raised lambs, which means the lambs are on pasture. Picture 200 sheep out on a section five acres or larger, that may be a 1/4 mile walk from our house. The sheep are not tame or friendly, so humans can’t get very close to view or touch individuals when they are in the pasture.

Thus, to start the process, you need to specify the live weight range you want. We review computer records and find a lamb that is at that weight range. Then we drive an ATV and trailer out to the pasture and round up the sheep with border collies, and retrieve your specific lamb. We bring it up to the barn so it is ready and waiting for you. This requires some advance notice, ideally a week or more, so that we can fit this sorting chore into our work schedule. And, also so the lamb can relax and eat in the barn and flush any stress hormones before you come, which is ideal for best meat quality.

This also requires a pre-paid, non-refundable deposit. It can take 30 minutes to find and haul your lamb up to the barn, and if the purchase is canceled, another 30 minutes to haul the lamb back out to pasture. Thus, we can’t make this effort without pre-payment, and if a buyer does need to cancel, the deposit is non-refundable, to compensate for our time in handling and hauling the lamb.

Can I buy a breeding animal for the same price as a slaughter animal?

No, and here’s why. Butcher lamb sales are the lowest overhead and least risk. Interaction with the buyer is usually only 5-10 minutes, and the buyer accepts whatever lamb I give them at the specified weight. I spend another few minutes transacting with the slaughter truck crew on their monthly rounds, and hand a list of phone numbers to the butcher. And that’s it, the transaction is done, the butcher shop takes it from there.

Buyers of breeding stock require a lot more of my time, both before and after the sale. These buyers have a lot more questions to answer up-front as we determine what their breeding goals are, and which animals are a good fit for them. These buyers often want to come out and inspect the sheep or choose from a larger group. Which isn’t unreasonable when committing to spending money quality breeding stock; but this usually takes an hour or more for me and my border collies to sort and hold sheep for the “shopper”. Then, there is a secondary appointment to pick up the sheep, and my prep time to generate registration and transfer paperwork, health records, record the sale data and tax exempt forms, etc.

There is some risk involved in selling breeding stock also: if the animal perishes some weeks after the sale, the buyer may call wanting a refund or to split the cost of the loss. This is a rare occurrence, but could happen for any number of reasons. The animal may have had sub-clinical illness while here, or it may have gotten injured or sick during the stress of transport (aka “shipping fever”). Or, the new buyer may fail to quarantine and adequately monitor the animal’s health, or maintain a sufficient de-worming and vaccination schedule that’s appropriate for their environment. Or, he may poorly transition the animal’s feed, triggering acidosis and rapid death. Though I don’t offer a specific guarantee on purchased sheep, if a loss were to occur shortly after the sale, I would work with the buyer to determine cause and come to agreement on a settlement or replacement. This is different from a butcher animal transaction, where the animal is slaughtered upon purchase, so there is no concern about longevity and liability for loss.

Breeding animal buyers usually call, email and text me with a lot of questions about sheep husbandry over the following year, or several years. I don’t mind this, as I love talking about sheep, sharing knowledge, and also learning from customer experiences. But, it is time overhead that doesn’t exist with butcher lamb buyers. Over the life of that animal, I may have a dozen or more hours invested in that buyer transaction. Even paid at minimum wage, that time is worth over $130. And of course, industry knowledge and experience is worth much more than fast food restaurant wages!

Lastly, when a buyer purchases breeding stock, they are investing in something of value. These are animals that are a product of my careful breeding program and years of genetic selection; that I have selected as superior to those earmarked for slaughter. They bring to the buyer the potential for years of production and income.  That value is much higher than the value of a single slaughter animal, you are not just buying an animal, you are purchasing genetics.

You can probably find a seller on craigslist who is selling breeding stock for below market value, often even selling an animal at a loss (whether they realize it or not). But, you have to evaluate, why? Is that animal sick, a poor producer, or has that breeder earned a bad reputation where they cannot command market prices? Does the breeder have an insidious disease in his herd, such as OPP? Or, does that breeder just lack enough industry knowledge to even price his animals correctly? Purchasing cheap breeding stock may be tempting to save money in the short term. But it almost always costs more in the long run, if the animals bring in chronic disease, or turn out to be poor producers that wind up on the cull list a year or two later, leaving no quality replacement stock in their stead.

I do understand that small homesteaders just starting out may be on a budget, and may not want to risk purchasing top-end breeding stock when they are entering a steep learning curve, where some losses are expected.  Or, some people are coming from a different region where prices are depressed compared to Seattle, so the value of breeding stock is not the same for them. I can work with these buyers, often choosing some middle-aged, experienced ewes that are aging-out of my program, but still have useful years left to produce some replacement ewes. We can also find breeding rams that are just slightly better than the cut list for butcher animals. These  make suitable terminal sires, but are priced such that it’s reasonable to breed them then butcher them, avoiding the overhead cost of feeding a ram all year just to breed a half-dozen ewes. Just contact me and we can discuss and figure out a package that will work to meet your goals.

Can I come to the farm to pick out my breeding stock in person?

You are certainly welcome to come to the farm and visually and physically inspect sheep you are planning to purchase, before making your final buying commitment. That said, most of the  year, there are 100-300 sheep here on pasture. It’s not feasible to wander the pasture and point out sheep that catch your eye, and say “is that one for sale and for how much?” I can’t keep track of all those sheep in my head, so any sheep that  you point out, I’d have to go look it up on my computer to ascertain whether it’s for sale, and to be able to tell you any information about the animal. Only a percentage of the sheep here are for sale as breeding stock, the rest are my “keepers” or are earmarked for the slaughter channel.

Thus, it’s imperative that you come with a “short list” of sheep you are interested in buying and narrow down your final choices from there. For example, if you plan to buy six ewes, I recommend making a list of ten from the website that you like, then coming to view those ten animals and narrow down your choices. It’s most efficient to start with the list of available sheep for sale, or to tell me what you’re looking for and I’ll help you derive a list of sheep that are most likely to meet your needs. It’s also really important that you know your priorities, or you will be overwhelmed by the choices here. Sometimes I have people start out saying “fast growing lambs and crop yield are the most important thing to me”, but when they get here, they get distracted by a pretty pinto ram that has lower growth scores. Or, someone specifies they are working on a tight budget, so I give them a list of lower-cost choices, but then when they arrive, they suddenly become interested in the most expensive animal here and are torn with indecision. This can make the selection process take a long time.

I ask that if you need to spend more than an hour here learning or making purchase selections, that you offer to pay an hourly rate for my time in answering questions, or sorting sheep and presenting them for your inspection. We are so busy on the farm and there is so much work to do, time is very precious. It’s really tough when a potential buyer takes up several hours of time, and then sometimes decides not to even make a purchase. But, it is certainly reasonable to ask to inspect animals before buying, as long as this is done in a time-efficient manner.

Can I come visit to learn about sheep ownership?

Sure.  But I ask that you do some research first and limit your information-gathering visit to under an hour.  We are very busy on the farm, and there is so much to learn about sheep, it can’t all be imparted in a visit. I recommend reading at least one book on sheep husbandry before embarking on a sheep ownership journey.  Storey’s Guide to Raising Sheep by Paula Simmons and Carol Ekarius is a good one to start with.  On one hand, sheep are easy livestock to raise and work with. On the other hand, beginners can have a lot go terribly wrong if they don’t do enough research up-front. An  hour visit will not prepare you for all you need to know.  Buying sheep first, and planning on learning about them later tends to backfire on a lot of people.  Before buying your first sheep, be prepared with a plan for protecting them from coyotes and loose dogs, for knowing how much they need to eat and how you will purchase, haul and store feed; how you will catch and handle your sheep for routine chores,  what your vaccination and de-worming protocols will be, how you will manage your pastures, and how you will handle veterinary emergencies. Also research a budget for not only purchasing the sheep, but their year-round care and feeding, and what income you expect to make off the sheep, if any.

Can I buy a young lamb to grow out for butchering on my own place?

Yes, you can. We don’t always have the optimal schedule for this if you are trying to maximize  use of your summer graze. Most of our lambs are born in April, and are weaned at 90 or 120 days of age; so are ready to leave here in July or August. But, we do sometimes have some earlier-born lambs, or bottle lambs that are weaned in early June.

If taking on lambs less than 3 months old, it’s best if they can be supplemented while on grass. Lambs are born with an undeveloped rumen, and it doesn’t fully mature to make the best use of grass until they are 3-4 months old. Young lambs can fail to thrive if transitioned onto pasture alone, especially if your grass isn’t perfectly maintained in a “boot high” vegetative stage with no seed heads. Lambs can benefit from either a grain source (corn-oats-barley “COB” or a pelleted sheep or allstock feed) or alfalfa. This feeds their “true stomach” and boosts growth and immune strength during the phase when their rumens are still maturing. Here on our farm, lambs benefit from nursing throughout the summer, so they are getting that extra protein boost on top of their graze. Lambs can be transitioned to good grass alone as early as eight weeks of age, but you may see some stagnation in growth progress for a few months before they “catch up.”

What is the minimum flock size I should start with?

Many folks want to just get started with one or two sheep. Keep in mind that sheep for herd animals, however. They feel safe and comforted when in a group. One or two sheep by themselves will be constantly anxious and feeling exposed, putting them in a state of continual stress. A ewe with lambs at side will not be comforted by the company of her lambs, but rather, the need to protect them will make her feel even more anxious.

Thus, it’s ideal to start with a flock of at least three to five adult sheep together. Fewer sheep can do OK if they are joining a group of other herd animals- goats, horses, llamas, cows etc. It works best if the new hybrid herd can be kept in closer quarters at first, where the sheep are able to “join up” with the existing herd. In a large pasture, the resident herd may shun the new sheep, leaving them feeling vulnerable.

Can you butcher my lamb for me?

We cannot, as we are not licensed butchers. In Washington state, there are three legal channels for slaughtering food animals.

The first is the simplest: the owner of the animal has the legal right to do his own butchering. So, if you purchase a lamb from us, and you have the skills, you’re free to slaughter and process it according to your preferences. You must supply all your own tools and materials, and you are solely responsible for food safety practices.

The second option is to take the lamb to a custom-exempt butcher shop. These are state-licensed shops that can legally process animals for the animal’s owner. So, you still have to own the lamb at the time they process it, and you pay them directly for their services. We use Kelso’s Kustom Meats in Snohomish. They do a great job, and will cut and wrap the product to your specifications. They will also just do the kill/skinning/gutting, if you would prefer to take home the whole frame and “fabricate” (or break down into individual cuts) yourself. All cuts that leave a custom-exempt butcher shop, by law, carry a label that specifies “not for re-sale”. The meat cuts must go directly to you and your family, and can only be shared with house guests. They cannot be sold commercially.

The third option is for the animal to be sent through a USDA-inspected slaughter plant and cut/wrap facility. There aren’t many of these facilities left in our state, and most of them are inaccessible to small family producers. The only way that meat can be sold/bought by the cut is if it goes through one of these plants and is specially labeled as USDA-inspected. The processing cost of this channel is higher.

Can I have a lamb processed for XX date for a celebration?

This usually doesn’t work out unless there is lucky timing. If you don’t want to do your own butchering, we can send your lamb to the local custom-exempt butcher shop in town, where they can process it any way you like. But the butcher shops are very, very busy most of the year. We schedule our fall and winter slaughter dates months in advance. We usually only send one batch of lambs per month. Many of those spots are pre-sold months in advance. So usually a lot of planning-ahead is needed to line up one of these dates with your celebration needs. Occasionally, luck is on the customer’s side, and a last-minute request coincides with a butcher date we already had on the books, we have room on that date to add an order, and we have a lamb that fits the customer’s weight request. You can see, a lot of planets have to align for this to work out! So, it’s worth asking, but don’t get your hopes up! 🙂

In spring and summer, it’s easier to get a butcher date. But, it’s expensive to drive the slaughter truck out here for one lamb. So, it’s most affordable to get on a “batch” order where we’re already sending a bunch of lambs on one day.

How Can I Haul Sheep Home?

The great thing about sheep is they are pretty easy to transport. Towing a whole horse trailer here for one or two sheep usually isn’t necessary! (Though you can certainly rent a horse trailer for 4 hours from most local rental agencies for a  modest fee.) The easiest option is to haul them in the back of a pickup truck that has a canopy. If you don’t have a canopy, constructing a wood and/or wire pen in the back of your truck will work as well. People also haul sheep in the back of SUV’s, minivans  or station wagons; often laying down a tarp and shavings to protect the carpet. It even works to have them stand in on the floor in the front or back seat in a sedan, if it’s not a long drive.

Hauling them in dog crates can be practical, as long as you have the right sized crate. Lambs 90 lbs and under will fit in a Labrador Retriever-sized crate (a “400” Vari Kennel size). Mature ewes need a “500” crate, which is sized for giant dog breeds like Grate Danes or St. Bernards. Lambs can be lifted by one person, but mature ewes take two people to lift into a pickup.

Mature rams usually need a bigger box, as they are over 200 lbs.  They are also harder to lift into a high pickup bed. What has worked here is to load them onto my sheep stand, which has a hand-crank winch to raise it up. We can get it close to the height of a pickup bed, then lift the ram, front end first, then hind end, into the bed.

Please note that sheep loaded for hauling off our farm must be transported in such a way as they are able to both stand and lie down, for their welfare during transport. We do not allow sheep to leave here “hog-tied”.

If hauling in a pickup bed, make sure you have a very secure structure with tie-downs, so that you don’t risk losing your sheep on the highway. Better safe than sorry, as you’d never catch them if you lost your load in the road. Fearful sheep can jump pretty high, so don’t neglect making sure the top/lid of your pen is solid. It’s best if the sides of the enclosure are somewhat solid, so that the sheep are protected from wind and too much visual stimuli, to reduce stress. If transporting bred ewes, be especially careful, as stress can induce fetal loss, especially in the first few months of pregnancy.

Herd animals feel comforted when they are “snug”, so best to err on the side of squeezing them in rather than having them try to maintain balance while riding in a big open space. Some people halter-tie them to help stabilize them. It’s great if you can see them in your rear-view mirror, to monitor their welfare during a long drive if they are tied.

When you get home, help the sheep down if they are jumping from a high truck bed, to reduce the stress on their front legs when landing. Try to unload them straight into a secure pen, so that you don’t risk them escaping upon arrival. They are usually fairly stressed and flighty when they arrive at their destination, so it’s not a great time to have one get loose! If they are in a small pen together for a few days, they will acclimate and learn who feeds them and where, then they can be exposed to a larger living area.