By Roger A. High, State Sheep Extension Associate
(Originally Published in Sheep Team Newsletter February 2004)
Would we eat what we produce? We must remember each and every day as we go to the barn to feed our sheep, take care of our lambs, give medications, manage our flocks, and every other aspect of sheep management and production, that we are producing a FOOD product. Yes, we are producing food that our family, our children, or grandchildren, or someone else’s family, children, and grandchildren will eat. We need to take pride and responsibility for the lamb/food products we produce and the impact they may have on someone’s life.
First of all, we need to do everything we can to help ensure our industry is producing and marketing a safe and wholesome product to our consumer. What does WHOLESOME mean; it means that the product is free from anything that might make a person ill or a hazard.
There are certain procedures we need to consider anytime we administer a medication, such as the proper withdrawal period, and what impact that medication may have not only on the live animal, but also on the resulting food product from that animal. The main thing that we need to do in order to decide the best way to administer a medication is FOLLOW THE LABEL! We need to use each and every product exactly the way the label indicates it should be used. When you do not use that product exactly as the label states, it is referred to as EXTRA LABEL USE and may result in unexpected reactions, lack of effectiveness, or unacceptable levels of chemical residues at the time of harvest. Some examples of extra label use includes: using a larger dose than the label indicates, giving a medication for a longer time period than the label states, giving a medication subcutaneously instead of intramuscularly, using a product labeled for cattle in sheep, or using a product on an animal that is not labeled for animal use. If you have any questions dealing with the extra label use of any product, you should discuss them with your Veterinarian. Remember, it is always a good idea to have a good Veterinarian-Client-Patient Relationship (VCPR), to assist with any health related issues you have with your animal production program. Also, remember to always READ THE LABEL.
Cleanliness of the animal
This is an issue that we sometimes forget about or choose to ignore. We must remember that these animals will be harvested for human food consumption, and the cleaner and healthier they are, the more likely they will produce a wholesome product. During the harvesting process, our industry strives to prevent any fecal or visceral contamination from contacting the carcass. The chance for contamination to occur is greater when lambs are harvested with dirty, long-fleeced pelts and full stomachs. We need to realize that the possibility of transferring fecal contamination to the carcass is greater when lambs enter the harvesting process with more manure and mud on the pelt/fleece. How can we as producers help prevent fecal contamination on carcasses? The best way is to follow a simple management strategy; we need to shear our lambs 70 to 90 days prior to harvest. By following this recommendation, our lambs will be much cleaner during the harvest and will still have a Number 1 pelt (a pelt that is ½ to 1 inch in length, and really has the most value to the packer). In the future, a packer may choose to require lambs to be shorn a certain number of days prior to harvest to help reduce the possibility of carcass contamination by the wool and fecal matter. Food borne illnesses such as E. Coli 0157:H7 are on a lot of our consumer’s minds when it comes to red meat consumption, even though red meat may not be the main culprit, it is the one that gets a large amount of attention. By simply shearing the lambs at the proper time, we can help reduce the risk of food borne illnesses and help the packer and the industry in marketing a safe and wholesome product.
Marketing issues of the live animal
We also need to market clean animals. We need the appearance of our animals to indicate that they have been raised by people who are concerned about both the animal, and the product it will produce.
Many people ask the question; “Why dock (remove the tail) your lambs?” There are several reasons to dock lambs. One of the main reasons to dock lambs is to reduce the possibility of transferring fecal contamination to the carcass during harvest. By removing the tail of the lambs, it is not as likely to have a manure (fecal) buildup, thereby reducing the opportunity for fecal contamination to come in contact with the lamb carcass. Another important reason for docking is increased profitability. Lambs with tails are not desired by most packers due to the loss of weight from the tail. Think of these numbers as if you were a packer. A lamb with 5 lbs. of wool and manure on a tail that was purchased for $0.95 per pound, has $4.75 worth of wool and manure that is worth $0.00 to the consumer. Why would the packer want to buy that lamb and take such a financial loss. Because these lambs are less valuable to the packer, they will, in turn, be less valuable to the feeder and the producer. We as sheep producers would do ourselves a favor by docking our lambs.
Another practice we need to consider is castrating our ram lambs. Again we can look at a couple of issues. We can increase profitability by castrating our ram lambs at or soon after birth. Ram lambs are not desired by lamb feeders due to decreased gains as a result of ram lambs chasing ewe lambs, causing pregnancy in ewe lambs, cost of castration at older ages, and decreased market price because packers do not necessarily prefer the ram lambs either. Generally, the meat from ram lambs is less desirable than that of ewe and wether lambs. We do not really have an established market for ram testicles! When was the last time you had lamb fries as a snack? However, there are always exceptions. If you know your markets and your market is the small ethnic trade, then it is not always recommended that you castrate your lambs. But a large majority of the time, castration will result in a more profitable management practice considering the cost of an elastrator band is $0.015 and you could improve your profitability many fold by the use of that $0.015 elastrator band, not to mention putting a more desirable product in the market place.
Marketing issues of the lamb product
We also need to consider such things as meat color, flavor, tenderness, cutability (yield grade) and lack of product defects such as injection sites. Remember that a high percentage of our lambs will grade “Prime” or “Choice” but if a sheep producer is producing those “Good” and “Select” grades, then you are producing a product that is unacceptable for the consumer. Generally lambs that produce a yield grade 2 and low yield grade 3 carcass are the most acceptable to the packer and to our consumers. In addition, our consumers expect to see a nice, youthful color in a chop or roast, that when prepared provides a very desirable eating experience, not a “dark cutter”, or one which is tough and leathery, with poor flavor. The latter is not the way to gain consumer confidence.
As producers we also need to reduce the incidence of defects such as bruises and injection site blemishes. Injection sites can cause abscesses, and abscesses can cause loss of product at the processing plant, and if not detected by the processor, leave a very negative impression with our consumers. Injection sites are not only unsightly, they can also decrease the tenderness of the meat product, which translates into less demand in the market place. Remember the proper injection site is in the neck region and not in the leg or loin area. We need to do anything we can as producers to produce a wholesome and safe product and to also improve the quality and eating experience associated with lamb products.
Summary – What can we do?
We have discussed several things that may impact your answer to “Would I eat what I produce?” We need to make sure that we are medicating our animals properly, by following the instructions on the label. Are we using the proper types of injections, using the proper medications, and giving those injections in the proper place on the animals. We need to work with our veterinarian to develop and implement an animal health and a sound biosecurity program. We need to keep birds, cats, rodents, and manure out of our feed and feed bunks. We need to keep our waterers and feeders clean. We need to maintain a healthy and sanitary environment for our animal. We need to produce and market clean, healthy animals to help ensure that a wholesome and safe product is produced by the packer and then sold to the consumer. We should produce a product that you as the producer or your family would want to consume. Finally, we need to remember that we are in the food producing business and we have a role to play in producing food for our consumers, families and ourselves. Ask yourself: “Would I eat what I produce?”, and “Would others want to eat what I produce?”