It’s fall and this year I vowed not to go into winter with as many sheep as I had last year. So our fall slaughtering has started. We’ve already done 16 adult ewes and today was 10 young rams.
We have to schedule slaughter dates over a year in advance and I have 66 slots this fall. I can always call a couple of weeks before the date and cancel a few but there is no way to add a few sheep to a slaughter date or get another date if I have more sheep ready to go than I planned on. I have already had to schedule my 2008 and 2009 slaughter dates. This can be a real problem, not only do I have to estimate how many sheep I will have to slaughter but I have to do it before we’ve even put rams in with the ewes and way before I know how lambing has gone. I’ve been caught before with more sheep than I can get killed and so this year I decided to make sure I had plenty of dates.
Our slaughter protocol starts at a minimum 3 weeks before the scheduled date. First step is deciding who is on the butcher list. Rams that butt us, ewes that have failed to care for lambs, have no more teeth or other similar problems are on the list. I also cull out to the freezer the lower ranking lambs. My goal is that the keepers of the ram lambs are all in the top 25% so I have 75% of the ram lambs born that are scheduled to be dinner. For ewes I try to select keepers (which for us also includes all for sale animals) from the top 50%. This year we produced 88 lambs, 49 ram lambs and 39 ewe lambs. So right off the bat I have to select about 37 rams and 20 ewes to butcher. That doesn’t leave us many slots for old ewes so we’ll end up with a few spare dinner sheep over winter.
Once the sheep are on the list we have many things we do to ensure that they produce good tasty meat with as little stress as we can manage. Our sheep are forage (grass and hay) finished. That means no grain. While this is more natural and produces wonderful healthy meat it does mean there is no excess glycogen in the muscles of the slaughter sheep. Muscle glycogen stores are what affect the Ph of the muscle at slaughter and the Ph and the subsequent changes in Ph as meat ages are what affects tenderness and taste. Grain fed animals have excess glycogen stored in their muscles. Under stress the glycogen of the muscles is used to combat the stress. We have no cushion that a grain fed animal would have so we need to do more to ensure that our animals are not stressed. Through experience we have learned that 15 minutes of really high stress will ruin the meat. And the bad effects from a significant stress situation will take 2 weeks to clear out of the muscles.
To reduce stress all butcher sheep are kept togther in sex segregated pens starting about 3 weeks before their slaughter date. So rams will be kept with rams and ewes with ewes. We keep all the slaughter sheep together so that they are with their buddies. One huge stress for animals is to have to deal with strangers so we make sure there are no strangers in the butcher pens.
Keeping the sheep in small pens means they are more used to us being near them so the stress of human contact is also minimized. We feed as high a legume feed as we have during the last 3 weeks. Legumes produce more muscle glycogen so a high legume diet is better for loading the muscles with glycogen.
We load the sheep into the trailer the night before so that the minimal stress of loading has several hours to wear off. We also keep feed and water in front of the sheep right until they walk off the trailer into the kill pens. Most slaughter houses want the animals to be off feed and water for 24 hours but for our forage finished sheep that would ruin the meat and stress the animals. We are fortunate to have a butcher willing to take the extra time it takes to properly prepare sheep who have full rumens. It’s possible but does take more time and many places will not do it.
Finally, based on research data from both France and Finland on glycogen stores in the muscle of grass finished cattle we have added an additional insurance policy. Just before we pull out of the driveway we give each and every sheep about 10cc per 50 pounds body weight of a mixture of 50% propylene glycol and 50% molasses. Propylene glycol is a food additive for ruminants. It provides a quick dose of glycogen that gets into the muscles within 15 minutes of administering. It’s often used to treat pregnancy toxemia or when sheep go off feed. Molasses makes the mixture good tasting and ensures the sheep will eat it. We found that this gives us about an hour and a half to get the sheep to the slaughterhouse and killed before they are using up their own muscle glycogen.
Once there we slowly and easily unload the sheep and get them into the pen. The butcher has worked with us to make sure our sheep are killed first so as not to run out of muscle glycogen.
This process is very labor intensive but we feel it produces the best meat we can and minimizes the stress our dinner sheep feel.
We are proud to provide tasty meat and also proud that we take care to make sure our precious sheep perform their function with as little stress as we can manage.