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How We Raise Great Grass Fed Lamb

Tasty, healthy, ethical meat from a local farm

What makes sheep great

In a lot of ways sheep are the perfect livestock. Stand next to a cow and you can't help but realize how easily it could knock you over if it tried. Stand next to a pig and sometimes it will knock you over, not out of malice but because pigs simply don't have any concept of personal space. But sheep aren't so big as cows or so pushy as pigs. More than any other type of livestock they like to be in a group, which is probably why they have a reputation for dimness.

But what is commonly seen as stupidity is actually disinterest, I think. Even more than cows sheep do not seem to care much about humans or the concerns of humans. They are so exquisitely attuned to each other and to the location of the tenderest shoots of grass and plantain that they can't much be bothered to notice people. It's true that sheep appear singularly unexpressive, but I prefer to think this has more to do with their inherent stoicism than a lack of insight. Sheep are indisputably good at being sheep.

The right sheep

I raise Katahdins, a breed of sheep that was developed in Maine beginning in the 1950s. Katahdins are hair sheep, which means they do not need to be sheared. Instead, like wild sheep, the thick coat that keeps them warm through the winter sheds away as spring sets in. The are vigorous, hearty sheep that thrive on a 100% grass fed and grass finished diet. Further, the meat of Katahdin lamb is at once mild and complex. It is rich and flavorful, never gamey.

Synergistic sheep

One reason sheep work so well with cows is that they favor different species of plants. Sheep will actively seek out goldenrod and milkweed, which cows generally avoid. When it comes to bushes and brush, sheep will browse back branches and strip bark from trunks. Together, sheep and cows transform scrub and marginal land into beautiful pasture much more effectively than either could do alone. Compared to my cows, I have a pretty small sheep herd. I expect them to eat perhaps a tenth the amount of grass my cows do. Yet the impact the sheep have on pasture quality is outsized.

I’m going to pause on this point because I think it is so interesting and important to understand. By changing the number and types of animals on a piece of land, the species of plants change in response. Open land in central New York quickly becomes goldenrod, milkweed, and little else. Now, I have nothing against these. In fact, I’m thrilled that they persist on fence lines and intermittently in my pastures. But I want a lot of other stuff too - I want many species of grass, clovers, vetches, plantains, chicory, curly dock and dozens of other plants. By eating goldenrod and other species prone to crowding everything else out, sheep actually make room for a much greater diversity. 

Real Diversity

To me this is an important part of good farming. I want my farm to have healthy habitats for more species than if my animals and I weren't here. Adding sheep obviously puts another species into the mix, but their presence also shifts the composition of plants in the pasture. I love the fact that the way Cairncrest Farm operates helps build an ecosystem that grows more vibrant with each year.