Friday, December 7, 2012

Meat Happens

On occasion, I’ll receive a phone call or an email asking if we have a whole lamb for sale.  Generally the potential customer who makes contact in this manner needs a whole lamb within the next week or two, and I’m usually unable to comply.  For us, the sale of meat is just the last step in a very long chain of decisions and actions.  I thought it might be useful to explain how meat happens – at least at Flying Mule Farm.

In many respects, the total quantity of meat we have available in a given year is determined by how we manage our flock as much as 15 months before we’re able to sell a single lamb chop.  Each year in August, we evaluate our ewes and begin the process of “flushing.”  Flushing increases ovulation in our ewes by improving the quality of their nutritional intake.  We flush the ewes by putting them on irrigated pasture or feeding alfalfa for 4-6 weeks before we actually turn rams in the ewes for breeding season.

The time of year in which we have fresh lamb available is determined by the breeds of sheep that we use.  In our three-breed crossbreeding scheme, we use Border and North Country Cheviot ewes crossed with Blueface Leicester rams to give us our maternal flock of “mule” ewes.  We cross these mules with a third breed – a composite of Suffolk, Texel and Columbia – to give us lambs that will finish quickly on nothing but grass.  Because our maternal breeds are seasonally anestrous – that is, because they’ll only ovulate when the days are growing shorter – we breed the sheep in the fall and lamb in the early spring.  Since our lambs need 6-9 months to reach a finished size, this means that we have lamb available in the fall.  While there are several sheep breeds that can be bred year-round, we’ve found that these breeds present other challenges in our system.

By mid April, all of our lambs are born.  We select some of the ewe lambs for replacing ewes in our flock – those that didn’t conceive or lamb successfully are sold.  The balance of the lambs represents that year’s marketable crop.  When we separate the lambs from the ewes in June (a process called weaning), we also evaluate the quantity and quality of irrigated pasture that we have during the summer.  Grass-finishing lambs require incredibly high quality green forage – which in our Mediterranean climate means irrigated pasture in the summer months.  We try to match the number of lambs we keep for finishing with the amount of pasture available.  Sometimes, despite our best planning efforts, the amount of pasture changes unexpectedly.  This year, for example, one of our landlords decided to mow a significant amount of our irrigated pasture in August – severely limiting the amount of forage we had available for the fall.

Sometime in October, the first of the year’s lambs are ready to be processed.  We determine this by weight and by the degree of fat cover on each lamb.  Fat cover is directly related to the eating quality of the meat – we want enough fat for your lamb chops to be juicy, tender and flavorful.  At this point, we’ve incurred the expense of caring for the lamb’s mother for a full year, along with the expense of raising the lamb.  These costs include things like vaccines to prevent common diseases, rent payments for our pastures, fuel for my daily “commute” to check our flocks, dog food for our border collies and livestock protection dogs, payments to our sheep shearer, supplemental feed (hay and minerals), and other incidental expenses.

As we begin processing our lambs, we move into the heavily regulated part of the meat business.  For us to sell meat legally, we must have our lambs processed at a federally-inspected facility.  Both the harvesting process and the cutting and wrapping of our meat must be inspected.  We’re fortunate to live just 65 miles from the closest federally-inspected lamb processor – other producers must travel much greater distances to have their animals processed.

Processing requires us to play close attention to financial and logistical details.  Financially, processing represents our greatest per head expense.  We pay $25 per lamb for harvest services, and $55-65 per head for cut-and-wrap services.  If we can bring 10 or more lambs to our processor and have them cut-and-wrapped in an identical manner, we pay the lower fee.  Processing greater numbers of lambs allows us to reduce our per-head transportation costs, as well.  Each load of lambs requires two trips to our processor – one to deliver live animals on Tuesdays, and another to pick up meat on Fridays.  In terms of mileage and time, each load represents an expense of roughly $200.  If we only take 10 lambs per trip, the transportation cost alone amounts to $20 per animal.  We usually try to take 15 or more in each load.

Logistically, scheduling our trips to the processor requires careful coordination.  In order to get on the processing calendar on a given Tuesday, I need to call the processor by the prior Friday with the number of lambs I’ll be bringing.  On Monday afternoon or early Tuesday morning, I’ll sort the lambs that I’m hauling from the rest of the flock (a process that usually requires me to bring the entire flock into our corrals).  Early Tuesday morning (hopefully before 6 a.m.) I’ll load the lambs and begin the drive to Dixon.  Pulling a stock trailer through Sacramento rush-hour traffic can sometimes be a challenging job.  At the plant, we unload and weigh the lambs, and then I pre-pay the harvest fees.  I also provide a sheet for each group of lambs with the cuts of meat our customers want, along with the per pound price for each cut.  Usually the processor follows my instructions; sometimes they make mistakes (which I don’t find out about until I pick up our meat on the following Friday).  On Friday, I make a similar trip to Dixon (this time without the trailer) to pick up the finished product.  The meat from each lamb is put in its own box – if I’ve had 20 lambs harvested, I haul 20 boxes back to my meat locker in Roseville.  I also pay the cut-and-wrap fees at this time.  By the time I have meat to sell, I have incurred expenses of at least $80 per lamb just to get my product!

I should also note that we must pay attention to the amount of product we can expect from each lamb.  We try to finish our lambs at 90-100 pounds live weight.  Depending on how we have the lamb cut-and-wrapped, a 100-pound lamb will give us just 30-35 pounds of meat.  Our prices reflect both the costs outlined above and this yield factor.

At last, we have product for our customers!  Hopefully, we’ve selected the cuts that people want to purchase.  If we’ve had rib chops made by our processor, and our customers want rack of lamb, we’re both out of luck.  We store our products in a rented meat locker in Roseville (another expense – we pay $125 per month for about 400 cubic feet of storage space.  We also need to pay attention to our marketing expenses – our annual farmers’ market membership fees, our weekly stall fees, and our marketing time all add to the cost of producing our lamb.  Hopefully, we can sell our lamb quickly enough – and for enough money – to have some money left over after we’ve paid all of our expenses!

If I’ve done my job in planning, we will have enough lambs to meet our known demand – and to be able to meet the needs of new customers as well.  Even if I’ve planned successfully, however, the logistical and financial challenges involved in selling meat make it unprofitable to take one or two lambs to my processor for the customer that calls to order a whole lamb for next week.  I’d have to charge this customer substantially more just to cover my processing and transportation costs AND make a profit.

Like many small businesses, raising livestock and selling meat is immensely complicated – even more so if I want to do it profitably.  Basic biology requires me to make the right decisions well in advance of actually selling a lamb chop – the decisions I make in August determine the quantity and quality of products I have available 15 months in the future.  Unfortunately, I can’t simply walk out to the sheep tree and pick a ripe lamb when a customer calls!

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