Eating Lamb: Why isn’t lamb more popular?

Raising a small flock of sheep is becoming more common in the U.S. But there seems to be a lag in serving lamb at dinner.

Why is lamb not more popular? What is going on here?

Lamb is not popular with American consumers because it is harder to find a variety of cuts, most people did not grow up eating lamb and the price is higher per pound.

Lambs are raised on grass all over the country.

Is Keeping Sheep Easy? gives you some insights into the pros and cons of raising sheep for a living.

Lambs are very small farm friendly, easier to handle and more portable for the small or backyard farmer than other livestock.

Sounds like more people that are new to livestock, or anyone getting tired of paying the landscaper to mow every week, would benefit from raising a few lambs.

Is Raising Your Own Lambs For Meat Worth It? shows you how to make a budget to see if raising instead of buying your lamb would make sense.

Who eats lamb, anyway?

Now that we have looked into the raising the lambs part and found it to be doable, what about the next part, the eating?

First off, most people seem to like eating what they grew up eating. No new information there.

Who are the current lamb eaters and why is it not more common?

We have noticed that the current lamb consumers tend to fall into two groups.

One group of lamb consumers are the people who grew up eating lamb and like to continue eating it, especially for celebrations and traditional reasons.

I normally see this group listed as “ethnic” lamb consumers. That is an odd phrase, since we are all “ethnic.” I call this group traditional eaters.

Why Do People Eat Lamb And Not Sheep? goes into the differences between sheep and lamb.

The other group seems to be the people who want to try right from the farm, grass fed meat.

These folks are looking into lamb for flavor/nutrition (cooking) reasons or ethical (how the lamb was raised) reasons.

To use a newer term here, I normally go with foodie for this group of people.

Either way, look who didn’t get included in that list-a whole lot of normal, everyday people, that’s who!

As an example: I didn’t grow up eating lamb and I can’t think of anyone who did (and I’ve always lived in a rural area and noticed plenty of sheep on local pastures!) What is the disconnect here?

It is important to note that lamb is very popular in other parts of the world, so not eating much lamb is an American perspective that is not universal. In the U.K. and Australia, eating lamb is common and in China and India, as well.

sheep in truck racks
These are some of our sheep loaded in the truck racks and headed to the auction.

The 5 reasons lamb is lagging in popularity

  • Price per pound
  • Availability of lamb in the grocery store
  • Size of lamb cuts
  • Carcass yield compared to other livestock
  • A bit of romance

1. Price per pound

To me, this is the biggie-price. If you are on a budget, price per pound is important!

For someone who didn’t grow up eating lamb and needs to keep a lid on weekly expenses (that would include nearly everyone around here), it is hard to justify adventurous and usually more pricey eating options.

I have to point out that there is an argument to be made for the current cheap and commonly available meat being degrading to the environment and a less healthy/nutritious meat option.

Meaning the currently available cheap meat is actually costing you more in the long run, with adverse health and ecological consequences.

Unfortunately, this requires more of a long term outlook, and most stressed shoppers just want to get home.

In the short term, the main decision for shoppers is price per pound.

As long as the consumer can get meat that will acceptably perform in the kitchen the way the cook expects, most shoppers will be choosing based on price.

2. Availability of lamb in grocery stores

Here’s some crazy news, in the local chain grocery store, lamb has just recently become available as a normally stocked item in the meat case!

I’m thinking within the past two years as the time frame.

Before that, if you wanted lamb there was a special section of cuts from local animals purchased at the county fair, but that was just for as long as it lasted and only in the few weeks after the fair, not year round.

To be accurate, the retail counter at the local butcher shops have had lamb available for quite some time, but for the everyday grocery store shopper, no lamb in sight.

Update for early 2023: I was just in a big box store in town and they had multiple packs of lamb available, not just the ground lamb packages I saw a year or two ago, so something is changing.

However, I will have to admit, I did not see anyone by that section of the meat case or with lamb in their cart, but I’m a fairly infrequent shopper and tend to go in the less busy times, so maybe I just missed it.

3. Size of the lamb cuts

There is quite a bit of confusion regarding the size of lamb cuts, like lamb chops.

A full size, well finished market lamb is still a significantly smaller animal than a pig or a steer.

This means that the same cut from a pig and a lamb are going to be vastly different in size, think of a chop for a good comparison.

I think this size discrepancy throws people off more than anything else listed below.

However, think of it this way, a market lamb weighs 80-100 pounds, a market hog weighs 240-280 pounds and a market steer weighs 1,000-1,200 pounds.

Roughly speaking, a well grown market lamb is still 3 times smaller than a market hog and 10 times smaller than a market steer.

When you consider the size of the animal, the size difference in the cuts makes much more sense.

Sheep are less “improved,” meaning messed with for commercial agricultural gain than most other livestock.

Especially when you consider that the primary purpose of sheep for the past few hundred years was wool, not meat.

Up until the 1940’s, the main concern of sheep producers was wool production, not improving the meat quality of the breeding stock.

This only makes sense, farmers and ranchers would focus on improving the trait that they determined to be most valuable. Generally, this is the trait that pays the most since this is a business, not a hobby!

Most other types of livestock have had centuries of selection for meatiness, since that was the trait that mattered, the meat is the main product.

For sheep, the meat being the main income has only happened in the last 80 years.

While 80 years does allow for plenty of breeding for more meaty sheep, the time frame still significantly lags behind that of cattle, pigs or chickens bred for meat production.

rear view of lambs at a feeder
Lambs at the feeder.

4. Carcass yield compared to other livestock

The carcass yield is a tough barrier to cross. A lamb, or goat, will yield about 50% of live weight as a hanging (carcass in the butcher shop cooler) weight.

Once the lamb is cut, there will be more loss, bones that were in the carcass that do not get sold in the final cuts, parts that are trimmed off, etc.

This is true with any carcass, the hanging weight and the sellable cuts weight are never the same.

What this comes down to is for every lamb that goes to the butcher shop, the carcass weight is half of the live weight and 20-30% more comes off the carcass but is not sold as cuts.

The real kicker for lamb price per pound is that the slaughter fee for lambs is the same or really close to the same as for any other meat animal, like cattle or pigs.

Around here, the slaughter fee is $90 each.

This means that if you are getting 30 pounds of meat to eat, $3.00 of the cost of each pound is in the slaughter fee alone. I’m not saying this is an inappropriate cost.

I am pointing out that since a lamb is a smaller carcass to begin with, that same slaughter cost is much more per pound of meat.

If you are not raising your own lambs, this will become apparent to you when you are shopping at a farm store or farmer’s market table.

What ever the price per pound is for the farmer’s lamb, remember she had to pay $3.00 for the processing to get the lamb cuts to be approved for sale to customers.

5. A bit of romance

Really, the title of this section would be the lack of romance regarding sheep raising or the negative past that is commonly associated with sheep in the U.S.

I was talking to my husband about this one. What is it about lamb that some people, mainly Americans, can’t get past? I think it is the romance aspect of cowboys and cattle raising, notice I didn’t say sheep raising.

Did the guys on Bonanza have sheep? No, definitely not! They had cattle.

If I remember correctly, the only time the popular TV show Bonanza had sheep on it was when some trespassers (sheep owners) were grazing on land that belonged to someone else and eating the grass meant for cattle.

Not a good image for sheep or sheep raisers!

Another unfortunate association regarding eating lamb and a big section of Americans is military food.

This is inaccurately pegging lamb as the problem, when the solders were actually eating mutton (older sheep that have a much stronger flavor), not lamb.

Nothing wrong with eating mutton. Many consumers around the world actually prefer the taste of mutton compared to lamb.

However, mutton it is not the same as lamb! When the solders would be eating “lamb” that was actually mutton, day after day, they got sick of it.

That’s understandable. So sick of it, that most solders, like my grandfather, spent the rest of their lives hating it!

I have to admit, if my husband spent years hating a food, I wouldn’t be including it too often for dinner!

The sad part of this emotional tie to avoiding lamb is that so many people are missing out on an amazing meat! Local, healthy, raised in a way that you and the farmer can be happy with and tasty on top of it all.

Not to mention the ability of ruminants (sheep, cattle, goats, etc.) to heal land- look to Alan Savory for information on this topic. He’s an internationally known speaker, author and is easily found online.

Why is lamb more popular than mutton?

Lamb is meat from sheep that are less than one year old. Mutton is from sheep that are over one year of age.

There is an exception: in the U.K. a sheep between one and two years of age is called hogget. In the U.S. we do not make this distinction.

Lamb will have a milder taste and be more tender than mutton. While there are plenty of people worldwide that eat mutton, most in the U.S. would be eating lamb.

Why is lamb so good?

Lamb is a type of red meat that comes from young sheep. Not only is it a rich source of high-quality protein, but it is also an outstanding source of many vitamins and minerals, including iron, zinc, and vitamin B12. Because of this, regular consumption of lamb may promote muscle growth, maintenance, and performance.Mar 26, 2019 Lamb 101: Nutrition Facts and Health Effects – Healthline
https://www.healthline.com › nutrition › foods › lamb

I decided to start the answer to this question with the above quote, that way it won’t just sound like me trying to get more people to eat lamb. We are sheep farmers, after all!

Seriously though, there are two reasons I can think of off the top of my head that speak to lamb being good: nutrition, directly tied the vast majority of lamb in the U.S. being raised on pasture and ease of preparation/cooking.

The first reason that lamb is good for you is the way the lambs are raised. The vast majority of lambs in the U.S. are raised on pasture.

Raised on pasture means they are eating the majority of their calories from grass or other forages, not just outside in a dirt lot.

Lambs on pasture get the benefit of eating a biologically appropriate diet that is perfect for them and great for you.

Aside from the nutrition aspect of lamb, the other great for you part is if you are a neighbor or just happen to be driving by the lambs, no stink, and if managed well, regeneration of the pastures being grazed.

One of the main differences between lambs and other livestock is that lambs do not get put into confinement facilities, as so often is done with other livestock in modern livestock management systems.

Lambs do not grow well in confinement, factory farm style confinement. A roomy, well bedded pen will work just fine, factory farm style cramming, no.

The second reason lamb is a good choice of meat to cook for your family is it’s easy. We find lamb to be very tasty and easy to cook.

Really, just a few basics (like salt, pepper and olive oil), on the meat and into the oven it goes!

new lamb nursing
New lamb nursing.

How are lambs raised in the U.S.?

In the U.S. an increasing number of lambs are completely grass fed, while some producers still like to finish their lambs with a little grain at the end. Even better news: as farmers’ markets proliferate, more lamb is being raised locally and that means really fresh meat.

It’s Healthy: Grass-fed lamb, like other grass-fed meat, is an efficient way of getting the concentrated goodness of grass into our bodies. Besides that, lamb is rich in iron, zinc, selenium, vitamin B-12 and niacin, but it’s particularly rich in alpha-linolenic acid (ALA, one of those important omega-3 fatty acids you hear about). A 3-ounce serving of lamb, according to the American Lamb Board, has almost five times as much ALA as the same size piece of beef.

Kemp Minifle, Epicurious.com

As mentioned above, lambs in the U.S. are generally grass fed, meaning they were raised with their mom on a pasture.

Some producers supplement feed the lambs with grain or a higher quality hay, especially if the pastures are growing slowly or the lambs are being raised in the winter.

I know of two producers that raise lambs completely inside and feed them a mixed ration, just like you see dairy cattle eating, but that is unusual.

Lambs raised in a barn would have no worries of predators and near zero parasite problems, which in some situations, parasite infestation can be severe.

Most sheep and lambs are raised on pasture. Pasture and range are the traditional places to raise sheep and currently are used by most flock owners.

In the winter, all of the sheep need hay, since no more grass will grow until the spring.

Is rack of lamb baby sheep?

No, none of the cuts of lamb you would purchase at the store or from a farm are from a baby lamb.

This is a common misconception, I think mainly due to the confusion of the word lamb meaning baby sheep and meaning meat from a sheep less than a year old.

People who are not familiar with animals or butchering their own meat mix the two definitions together.

The actual age of the lamb on your table

Most lambs are slaughtered at 6-8 months of age.

For customers who want bigger lambs, meaning bigger cuts of meat and more meat per carcass at butchering, the lambs can be fed out longer.

Most people would want the lamb to be processed before it gets to be a year old, though. Keeping it much longer than that doesn’t get the additional growth for the additional time and feed costs.

Some customers want a smaller lamb to roast whole, generally for a celebration or holiday.

These smaller roaster lambs would still be 3-5 months old, and 50-60 pounds when sold off the farm.

Actually, this is the type of lamb that tops the sale at our local auction every week.

A group of Cheviot type lambs go through the sale ring and the buyers all take notice. They are a great looking bunch of lambs!

Age of lambs compared to other meat animals

Sheep mature quickly, with lambs being considered adults at one year of age.

Most Americans do not realize the age of the animals commonly processed for meat.

To a person unfamiliar with livestock, a year old lamb probably sounds young. Actually, it’s not.

At right around a year of age, a ram lamb’s first babies are being born and a ewe lamb has her first baby lambs!

Lambs are actually one of the older animals, younger only than cattle, and about the same age as goat kids.

Poultry and pork are both from livestock that reach market weight sooner than a lamb, meat chickens at 46 days and market hogs at 5.5 months.

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