The Last Grain-Fed Lambs

I’ve long been on a mission to integrate. That is, to “have integrity.”

The choice, to be integrated, can be a reward in itself. A recent shepherding decision has given me a satisfactory feeling, one of unification, of centering. I resolved last week that I will no longer feed grain to lambs.

dorper lambs

The last feeders

Thursday morning I hauled three lambs to slaughter. Those three wethers are the last I will fatten with grain. Starting now, Border Street lamb will only be produced on forage. This decision might mean that I am unable to provide my regular customers with large, choice-to-prime lambs, in the interim, until I improve my management and flock genetics. That is a chance I must take.

For the last five years, I have produced high-quality, grain-fed lamb. Life-long lamb lovers have told me that it’s the best they’ve ever had. It’s a product I’ve been proud to bring. Yet, I know that the future I’m headed toward is grass-fed. The best way to create the future is to begin living in it today. So, I will know longer bring grain-fed lamb to market.

I have known, since shortly after I started the hair sheep flock, that ruminant animals are not designed to eat grain. The introduction of grain requires a rewiring of the stomach. A grain diet is not necessarily a catastrophe for the health of the animal, but it is against millennia of nature built into the animal’s DNA.

A lamb’s ability to grow on grass is greatly diminished once its diet has been significantly-part grain. This is an especially important consideration in the rearing of replacement ewes–lambs that grow into part of the breeding flock. To raise them on grain for six to eight months and then return them to forage, and expect them to conceive and rear a lamb without trouble, is not a smoothe process. The grain diet can help them grow larger and more able to carry large lambs, but necessarily physiologically prepared to feed those lambs on a grass diet.

I decided during the winter that all future replacement ewes would grow up on forage, learning from their mothers and being self-weaned. Instead of grain feeding and breeding at eight to nine months of age, replacements will breed at eleven to thirteen months.

While lambs and replacement ewes will no longer grained on Border Street, some corn will continue to be fed.

I have found from experience, in confirmation of scientific research, that corn the diet of a ewe in the two weeks prior and following conception, increases the amount of females born by a significant margin. In a growing flock, where the desire is to build a group of females from like-genetics and examined performance, the corn advantage is one that I cannot pass up. Corn also likely has an advantage toward bringing twins, which is important my system, where lucerne or alfalfa are absent to gain me that advantage.

To be more precise, it is said to be the addition of Omega-6 fatty acid via corn that makes female births more common, versus the Omega-3 forage base. (I have had lamb crops of >75% males when conceiving without corn in the diet.) The availability of manganese to the ram and ewes is also critical.


Standing in the barn last week, tired of the bawling of the fat lambs waiting on their grain, I knew I was no longer in the right place.

If it takes me one hour to manage the grazing sheep–that’s great. I feel like that is an hour well-spent. I have put a lot of money into improving the quality of grazing. Most of that money can continue to pay me for years. Grain, however, is a bill that keeps on coming. And it means more time and resources diverted away from getting better and managing pasture. It means energy diverted from long-term goals.

I made the decision–no more grain.

Through better-managed pastures and improved lambing timing, lamb diets will improve, creating more nutritious meat. And I think flavor may even be enhanced.

I know that this decision is another step in the right direction for the flock and for me. I could see the road laying itself down before me.

Best regards,

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