Nothing beats the flavor of home grown lamb! And nothing can beat the price either!
If you are considering raising a few lambs for your freezer (and you should be!) how do you know when they are ready for the butcher?
Your lamb is ready to be butchered when it has filled out the rear leg inner thigh muscle and is carrying an appropriate covering of back fat (as measured by touching the backbone).
I’m still trying to figure out why, but I always feel great after I eat lamb!
I also feel great when we eat meat we raised ourselves and we save money and get higher quality all at the same time.
Not to mention that the prep for cooking lamb is super easy, it’s a winner!
So, how do you make sure that your lamb is ready to butcher? There are a few different things you can check, here’s the list with explanations to follow:
- Age of lamb
- Body condition
- Checking the inner thigh for muscling
Is Raising Lambs For Meat Worth It? shows you how to figure up your budget for buying, raising and butchering your lamb, to go from grass to freezer.
Lambs are ready to butcher at 6-8 months
A good ball park figure is that a lamb will be finished in 6-8 months. A lamb at 6-8 months of age would be a full size market lamb, for most breeds of sheep.
For details on the costs of feeding sheep, read my article How Much Does It Cost To Feed A Sheep?
The weight and body shape of the lamb at this age will be determined by genetics.
Certain breeds of lambs will finish at a lighter weight than other breeds of lambs.
Finishing weight only matters if it is a concern of yours, the finish (fat covering) that you are aiming for is about the same no matter the breed.
The 6-8 month mark is based on the lamb having all of the high quality forage to eat that it would want and is raised in a low stress and comfortable environment.
Any stress will slow growth, as will lack of appropriate nutrition! If these lambs were born on your farm, then this is easy to keep track of!
If you purchased the lambs as feeders, a weaned lamb you feed to finishing weight, then you’ll need some information from the farmer/rancher as to the age of the lambs.
Body condition indicates lamb finish
Body condition is the best indicator of telling when a lamb is finished.
You are looking for a lamb to have a good fat covering, remember fat is flavor! However, you don’t want to feed the lamb to be overly fat.
With an overly fat lamb, you are just wasting your money on extra feed, especially if you are feeding some concentrates.
So how do you tell the difference between needs more fat, is getting there or is finished? By touching the lamb.
Click here to read an explanation of body condition scoring from the University of Arkansas.
Hands on testing for lamb condition
Nothing replaces putting your hands on the lambs to figure out if they are finished or not.
Feeling along the backbone of the lamb will give you a good idea of the amount of fat coverage the lamb has. You’ll want some fat, fat is flavor!
If you can feel the bumps of the backbone, the lamb needs more time to put on weight.
If you press down on the backbone and feel nothing, you’ve gotten the lamb a bit too fat!
The wool on your sheep will deceive you, unless your lambs are slick shorn!
If your lambs have any wool to speak of, the only way to know their body condition is to feel for the fat along the backbone.
Hands on evaluating lamb condition
What exactly are you feeling for? Well interestingly enough, you have a good example of what you want that is easy to get to-your hands!
Too thin: make a fist and feel along the bumps of your knuckles. You should never feel backbone like this on your sheep!
If you feel backbone bumps like the knuckles of your fist, your lambs are way too thin!
Just right: open your hand out flat with the palm down, now feel along the knuckles again.
Feel how there are small bumps if you press down but overall the top of your knuckles is flat. A lamb with a backbone like this is looking good.
Too fat: open your hand out flat and turn the palm up this time, now feel across the heel of your hand (the wide part right above the wrist).
Feel how you can push but never feel any bumps? If the backbone of your lambs feels like the palm of your hand, they are too fat!
Too fat is not a problem, other than you kept them longer than you needed to.
This lamb will still be great for your freezer, just remember for the next lamb you raise to cut back the extra feeds, like concentrates.
Here is a push for grazing your lambs, we get perfectly finished lambs when they are kept on plentiful pasture and kept dewormed.
A lamb getting to be too fat on grass will be unusual. Where as an overly fat lamb when feeding concentrates is much more likely.
If you are looking for more tips on getting a nice finish on your lambs, read Achieving A Brilliant Finish On Lambs written by Meat and Livestock Australia.
Check the inner thigh for muscling
A market lamb naturally puts rear leg muscle on at the inner thigh, as opposed to cattle or pigs that put on rear leg muscle on the outer thigh.
This means that the further apart the rear legs set naturally, the more leg of lamb you will get for your freezer!
You can check the lamb for inner thigh development by looking from the rear while the lamb is standing.
However, if the lamb has longer wool, you’ll have a hard time seeing anything!
For lambs with longer wool, you’ll need to grab the lamb and turn it over, like you are going to shear it.
In this position, you can see how much inner thigh muscling is on the lamb.
As I mentioned above, you can look at the placement of the rear legs, the wider apart they are the more muscling the lamb has.
If you want the close up view, put the lamb in a shearing position and get a closer look.
Time to finish your lamb is 4-6 months
If you bought a weaned lamb from a farmer, consider that the lamb is probably 8 weeks old. It is best if you can ask, of course!
While you are there, also ask the typical finishing age, so you can have an idea of what you are shooting at. Read 5 Best Animals To Raise For Profit or Raising Sheep For Profit if you want more on the business side of sheep.
When you don’t know the age of the lambs
If you bought your lambs but do not know their age, take a look at their body structure. As a lamb gets older, it will “grow into” it’s legs.
This means that baby lambs will be all legs and no body, but older finished lambs will be nearly all body with the proportions of an adult sheep.
If your lambs still have a babyish look about them, it will be three or four months until they will finish.
If they have lost the baby look and shape, then they will be much closer to a finishing weight.
Generally, lambs will finish between 6-8 months of age, but this depends upon breed, what they are being fed and your management.
Lambs can be butchered at most any age
I also need to point out that lambs can be butchered at nearly any age, as long as they are in the ideal body condition. If your lambs need a few pounds, Need Lambs To Gain Weight will help you fatten up your lambs.
Some people are looking for a roaster, which is a smaller lamb that is cooked whole.
This lamb would be butchered at more like 60-70 pounds live weight.
People who want lamb cuts are usually wanting a market lamb that would be more in the 100 pound live weight range.
There is no right or wrong answer here, just be aware that your lambs will naturally finish at a certain weight, based on genetics.
If your friends who also raise a few lambs for the freezer, got their lambs butchered at a different time than yours, that’s great.
It’s all about the genetics of your lambs and different genetics will equal different finishing rates and weights.
Feeds to increase lamb growth rate
If you want your lambs to grow the most per day that they can and your forages (grass or hay) aren’t getting the job done, consider feeding some concentrates.
Concentrates is just the technical term for feed, which includes grain and pellets.
Concentrates must be introduced slowly to the lamb’s diet or the lambs will overeat, which can kill them! (Not kidding.)
Feeding concentrates to your lambs will make sure that they have plenty of calories per day to gain weight.
Concentrates are not needed, they are an option to increase the per day gains.
Since sheep are ruminants, they do not ever need anything other than high quality forages to eat.
I mention concentrates as an option so you can be informed and make an informed decision once you look into your choices.
If you want to feed and finish your lambs on grass, no concentrates what so ever, that is super! We are very pro grass fed and finished lamb!
For our farm and our resources, grass fed and finished is not always economical, but we use it as much as possible.
If we were raising a few lambs for ourselves, I would definitely go with the grass only plan!