Grass-fed lamb

Which foods are you willing to pay top dollar for?

May 6, 2008

All the recent articles filled with tips on slashing your grocery bill are making me uneasy.

I am not opposed to most of the advice. In fact, I agree with it. Yes, we should shop mindfully, cook from scratch, and eschew convenience foods. This is true whether the economy is flush or tanking.

Let’s get reacquainted with these practical habits; let’s become better cooks.

What bothers me, though, is a certain tone. Underlying the lists of helpful hints, I detect a set of beliefs about food’s relative importance. Or unimportance.

lambs in field
Lambs at Cattail Creek.

One: We are like broken records, forever thinking that food ought to cost less. Are farmers’ markets really to be regarded as an occasional indulgence — as I have seen them characterized — when the fruits and vegetables for sale there are among the most nutrient-dense and healthful foods to be found?

Two: When the cost of living goes up, one of the first places we look to cut corners is on what we eat, to compromise on what we put into our bodies.

When we scale back, I fear that instead of practicing the peasant’s art of turning humble fare into a nice spread, we merely substitute poor-quality ingredients. This is a half-baked effort to eat the way we always have, but for less money.

A recent New York Times article on consumer spending profiled American grocery shoppers switching to deli ham at the lowest price point.

I hope I never have to shop like that. I want to know more about the meat I consume than its retail price. More to the point, I want to know that it comes from animals that have eaten and lived well.

A few weeks ago, I visited John Neumeister’s Cattail Creek ranch in Oregon’s Willamette Valley. The purpose of the field trip was for my co-workers and me to see firsthand how the lamb we feature at our restaurant is raised. Beyond our concerns about the animals’ welfare, we were curious cooks. We wanted to know: What makes Cattail Creek lamb so sweet, its flavor rich but not sharp?

What we learned was exactly the kind of information I wish I could get about all the meat I cook.

After a 90-minute drive out of Portland on a wet 40-degree day, we poured out of our cars and were led immediately by Neumeister onto an emerald-green riverside pasture that held about 250 of his ewes and lambs.

We couldn’t get any closer to the sheep than about 100 yards, so we settled for watching them from afar while we peppered Neumeister with Lamb 101 questions. How old are the lambs at slaughter? About 3 months. Isn’t that younger than the industry standard? Yes, this is when the meat is mild. How do you ensure a year-round supply of lamb? Breed selection, consistent nutrition, and the strategic placement of a teaser ram to bring on heat in the ewes.

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Neumeister wasn’t going to let us get away without a primer on grass, though. After all, his sheep are completely grass-fed, meaning they eat only grass. Unlike cattle, for example, which are typically raised on grass before being fattened (“finished”) on a grain diet in a feedlot, these sheep spend their entire lives dining on pasture.

Like cattle, sheep are ruminants. Thanks to their four stomachs, one of which is basically a fermentation vat, ruminants have the unique ability to break down the cellulose in grass, access the plant’s protein, and convert it into animal protein.

Ruminants don’t do well digesting the soybeans and corn many industrial operations use to fatten their animals. If he has to supplement due to flooding or extreme cold, Neumeister feeds alfalfa to his sheep. As a side benefit, he is unaffected by rising corn prices.

“Our formula is rapidly growing young lamb on lush immature grass,” he says. Immature grass? We were about to find out that raising sheep on a diet of 100 percent grass is not as simple as building a fence and turning them loose.

Simply put, Neumeister feels that the best way to raise tender young lamb is to put them on tender young grass. Grasses no higher than 6 inches are the most nutrient-dense, and the most palatable to sheep. Taller, more mature grass puts its energy into growing seeds.

“The grass right now has the highest sugar content of the year,” says Neumeister of spring’s ideal growing conditions, including warm weather (except for today) and ample rainfall. “It makes the sweetest meat.” I make my own mental note to feast on lamb in about three months’ time.

lamb and arugula
Grilled Lamb Steaks with Green Olive and Scallion Salsa Verde.

This emphasis on nutritious grass has Neumeister masterminding a complex dance of rotational grazing. He and his partner move the sheep onto pastures of fresh grass every two to five days. That’s about how long it takes the ewes (most of them pregnant or lactating) and rapidly growing lambs to mow down the grass.

After this, a pasture needs about three weeks to grow back, depending on the time of year. Successive periods of grazing (with the side benefit of the fertilizer the sheep leave behind) force new growth and root reserves in the grass, just as mowing the lawn does.

“Scientists have developed devices to measure the biomass available for grazing in the field,” Neumeister says, “but the best information for the farmer comes from getting out of the truck and walking the field.” Which is something he does twice a day.

Cattail Creek’s herd has grown to about 1,200 breeding ewes and their lambs. Yet the ratio of sheep to land is kept low, about 2.4 ewes and their lambs per acre. Density of sheep to land, Neumeister notes, correlates strongly to disease.

To get that kind of land (he owns only 17 acres), he leases. Leased properties are usually former grass-seed farms. Neumeister overseeds these monocultures with a mixture of tall fescue, perennial rye grass, and white clover. It’s a mixture that he says grows naturally in the Willamette Valley.

He likes the mix to be about 50 percent clover. Clover pulls nitrogen from the air and puts it in the soil, providing fertilizer for the grasses.

Hmmm, I think, still wondering about the mild-yet-unique flavor of Cattail Creek lamb. Is this what it boils down to, some kind of synthesis between the ruminant animal and the rye, fescue, and clover it grazes, chews twice, then ferments and digests?

I’ll probably never find the answer. What I do know is that at the end of our visit, when the sun finally came out, I would have been content looking out at the expanse of grasses and woolly sheep for a very long time.

I think that satisfied feeling and the savory lamb meat I enjoy have something to do with what my vegetarian co-worker observed back in Portland, after our visit: Cattail Creek sheep lead about as good a life as you could hope.

And that, to me, is worth paying for.

Kelly Myers is a chef and writer in Portland, Oregon.

There are 15 comments on this item
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1. by MamaBird/SurelyYouNest on May 8, 2008 at 2:13 PM PDT

Love this article. We too have been focusing on the economy and trying to rein in our budget -- but like you, are focusing on trying to get our money to the farmers - eating less meat but of higher quality

2. by Charlotte on May 13, 2008 at 9:58 AM PDT

Just this morning I bought half a lamb, 18 pounds, at 6 dollars a pound from a local rancher. She delivered a recycled grocery sack of butchered, packaged and frozen meat right to my door. Yes, more expensive by the pound than the New Zealand stuff at Costco, but it’ll last me most of the summer, and although $6 a pound is a lot for ground, it’s not a lot for that gorgeous leg and whole shoulder. Plus, I had a lovely chat with a neighbor, and helped support my local community.

3. by Kelly Myers on May 15, 2008 at 8:51 PM PDT

What are your plans for the various cuts?

4. by Charlotte on May 16, 2008 at 5:38 AM PDT

Oh I don’t know yet -- I’ll probably save the leg for a backyard party sometime this summer -- it’s on the bone, but I’ll probably butterfly it, marinate it in herbs from the garden, lemon and olive oil then grill it. There are some chops -- same treatment for them, and a lot of kebab meat (which I like to marinate in a yogurt/chile/garlic sauce before grilling). I like to save the ground lamb to mix with ground game (antelope is what I have the most of this year) because the fattiness of the lamb works really well with the lean game. The shoulder -- who knows? it’s best braised so I’ll wait for a cool day, or for my cannellini runner beans to come in, and do another party ...

5. by Kelly Myers on May 17, 2008 at 10:45 AM PDT

I have a couple of ideas from the Italian repertoire that might fit well with your summer grilling. One is scottadito, literally “burn your fingers.” You marinate chops in chile flakes, lots of chopped rosemary, olive oil, and a touch of ground cloves and grill. Easy and spicy. Good with grilled polenta (4 cups water to one cup polenta makes it set up nicely on the grill) and a slaw. For the shoulder, you can braise it and let it chill completely, preferably overnight. Then you slice it, grill it (away from the hottest flames, so that it smokes as much as it heats through) for the smokey flavor and serve it with a spicy tomato sauce with garlic and cinnamon or a chutney. I’m impressed by your resourceful idea of mixing the rich ground lamb with the lean game.

6. by Farmgirl Susan on May 20, 2008 at 2:28 PM PDT

Thank you for writing such a fantastic article. So much wonderful information and food for thought. I’ve already told several people about it.

The scallion salsa verde sounds wonderful - I’m definitely going to make some, and your other recipe ideas in the comments have my mouth watering. I’d never heard of lamb leg steaks until last year when we had a butcher lamb customer who ‘wasn’t into roasts,’ so I asked our processor if he could slice a whole leg into steaks. Lamb steaks on the grill are now my favorite cut!

I’m curious - do you happen to know the live and/or dressed weight of the Cattail Creek 3 month old lambs?

7. by Kelly Myers on May 21, 2008 at 7:24 AM PDT

John of Cattail Creek says that they reach about 60# by three months of age, but I don’t know the live vs. dressed weight. He thinks that’s the ideal age/weight to butcher--any older and the lambs put on more fat than lean, he says.

8. by Farmgirl Susan on May 23, 2008 at 7:15 AM PDT

Thanks for your reply, Kelly. It’s always interesting to me to hear how other sheep producers do things - and why. I’m surprised that he feels his lambs get fatty any older/heavier than that, especially being grass fed. And those must be some little lamb chops! : )

We butcher our grass fed lambs at about twice that size (or even bigger), and yet the meat is very lean. I cringe when I read recipes that call for a 6 or 7 pound boneless leg of lamb - and 2 or 3 pounds of fat are cut off. <i>From where?</i> I wondered the other day when I unwrapped a leg of our lamb and couldn’t even figure out how I could trim any fat off. Talk about a per pound price increase when that much is going to waste. : ) Our sheep do get a lot of exercise, though.

Again, thanks for such a wonderful article!

9. by GIGI on Nov 19, 2008 at 4:34 PM PST

I spend top dollar on my red meats because I WILL ONLY CONSUME grass-fed red meats! I buy them on line and buy all types: grass-fed/finished beef, bison, elk, ostrich, lamb, goat, you name it, I eat it! Grass-fed Red Meats are aboslutely delicious and very healthy and I am all about staying/living a healthy lifestyle!

10. by MissAnn on Apr 2, 2009 at 6:13 PM PDT

I applaud your efforts to eat more sustainably; it is a good step.

However, I must say that I disagree with the idea of ‘humane meat’. Some say that it is okay to eat an animal because it was treated well and raised healthily, etc. I myself would never eat it because I do not want to eat my friends. A good way to relate is to think about the fact that we raise children in a good environment and ensure that they are healthy...but we don’t eat them, of course! Anyway, you don’t have to agree, I just prefer to see animals as friends rather than commodities. Wanted to get this point in the discussion, especially when it involves the term ‘humane’.=)

We should strive eat lower on the food chain;’humane livestock’ is just as inefficient as factory farmed meats in terms of energy/nutrient efficiency (I am referring to the trophic levels; 90% of the energy is lost every time one goes up a level).

11. by Arnold on Nov 19, 2009 at 6:22 PM PST

3 months? Geeze, I don’t think I could ever eat a baby animal, that’s wrong.

12. by anonymous on May 9, 2010 at 2:48 PM PDT

I can’t eat a baby lamb, at 3 months old. Do you know that sheep can live up to 50 years?

What if you were a sheep and had to pop out babies , then had to let them get taken away and slaughtered, constantly.

I love meat, and I would totally eat a 30 year old lamb. I’m sure they would taste great, if they didn’t have like 30 children. I really wish I could eat meat more.

13. by anonymous on May 10, 2010 at 4:33 PM PDT

What’s the difference between eating a baby animal and an old animal? Does their age make them less worthy of compassion?

14. by Carrie Oliver on May 29, 2010 at 7:31 AM PDT

Oregon is certainly a blessed place to raise pastured, grass-fed lamb! With regard to our expectation (if not sense of entitlement) to cheap food and in particular cheap meat, I find this baffling and frankly upsetting. There’s that old engineering project triangle: fast, good (quality), cheap, choose two. The retailers and processors have trained us to opt for fast and cheap. Charlotte has chosen good and cheap by buying by “the case.” Arguably, she’s also succeeded in grabbing fast, too. After all, she doesn’t have to go further than her freezer when she wants to serve lamb.

15. by Corinne Logan on Feb 25, 2012 at 7:01 PM PST

Oh my goodness - if we really only had to worry about soybeans and corn! Did you know that dead cow is an acceptable form of feed for a cow? Want to know how we got mad cow disease? ... THAT my friends, is just the beginning. Really. Just google acceptable feed for cows/feedlot/etc. You will understand why grass fed costs more.
As far as eating a 30 year old lamb, no, you really wouldn’t like to eat it. :-) After a year, they get pretty rank and nasty tasting. We tried. Ended up feeding it to the dogs.

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