Grass-fed, Grain-fed…what do these labels mean?

Last night I attended a “Bringing Everyone to the Dinner Table: Understanding Farm to Fork and Today’s Agriculture” event hosted by the Macomb County Farm Bureau (as in, Michigan’s outskirts of Detroit-area).

Michele Payn-Knoper, founder of Cause Matters Corp., Indiana dairy farmer, book author and fellow Michigan State University graduate (see her Spartan Saga here), was the guest speaker. She encouraged the attendees to share the dinner plate when it comes to food and farming topics.

On our farm, we recognize a variety of farming methods are needed to make the community healthy. Small and big farms, organic and “regular” farms, farms that use horsedrawn plows and tractors that use autosteer and GPS, heritage vegetable plots and GMO seeds…the list goes on and on. What we LOVE is to celebrate the choices that we have as American farmers.

Know what those choices mean? Choices in our grocery stores. Heck, choices at the direct on-farm markets and your local downtown farmers markets. The world is not black and white, as much as I would love clear rules. Right now we want things to be green anyway ;)

One more thing that seems to be murky these days, though, are the labels found on foods and other products. Grass-fed, grain-fed…what do these labels mean? Do they matter?

Not to start researching what others already know and have written about, I visited a blog entry from “Mom at the Meat Counter,” written by a mom/farmer/meat scientist/when-does-she-sleep rockstar. Because even though we raise sheep on pasture and our lambs get a “grainola” mixture with most homegrown crops, I know our way isn’t the only way. I’m not always right. (But please don’t tell my dad, OK?)

I always hope to learn from others’ questions. Foodies, I hope you ask a farmer (you’re looking at one) those questions, and farmers, take time to understand those questions. Foodies, you’re our customers and our neighbors. We care about making sure you feel confident in the choices we have. After all, farmers are food customers too!

What to prepare when you’re expecting…lambs

Imagine expecting 450 babies this year. If you’re a veterinarian or a farmer, you know where I am going with this. Here’s the top five things to prepare when you’re expecting…lambs.

MONTHS before the winter lambing season begins, you’re going to want to make hay when the sun shines. Vacation is nice. To save for winter. For farmer meetings, and only a few days at a time so your sheep know they can count on you to come back and feed hay. June, July, August and September in our northern climate are devoted to harvesting hay fields and some straw for homegrown feed and bedding for our ovine dependents. Store this stuff where it’s convenient to where you’re expecting lambs.

It may seem appealing to go on vacation in the summer, but there's nothing better than knowing we're prepared for a long winter and the lambs that will be born.

There’s nothing better than knowing we’re prepared for a long winter and the lambs that will be born on our farm.

Get your record book ready. No, record books aren’t just a task for 4-H youth. Keeping track of your flock records help you continue to make improvements as your business evolves. We’re still handwriting notes on each mom and baby, but I’m hoping to someday have electronic files of each animal.

Order USDA ear tags and elastrator bands (for tails and other dangling pieces you want to manage). The tags are free and the bands cost little from our friends over at Mid-States Wool Growers.

Ear tags aren't animal fashion accessories - they're a way to trace our animals back to this farm as a way of protecting public health.

Ear tags aren’t animal fashion accessories – they’re a way to trace our animals back to this farm as a way of protecting public health.

It also doesn’t hurt to have a heat lamp handy, a few plastic teats with recycled pop/water bottles and a syringe with feeding tube, in the case that you’ll have some “bonus lambs.” Most people would call these bottle lambs or orphan lambs, but I like to think of them as a small bonus. With a little extra effort on the farmer’s part, these lambs have an opportunity to be a youth project or a protein source, just like the others. And on that note, make sure you’re able to source some lamb milk replacer if needed.

Bonus lambs have potential to turn into bonus business.

Bonus lambs have potential to turn into bonus business. Isn’t my mom so cute with them?

Get the barn ready. Be sure you have enough water buckets for mothers and cut enough gates for “lambing jugs” (individual pens for new moms and babies) proportionate to your estimated amount of needed bonding-space. For instance, if we expect 90 ewes to have lambs over 3-4 weeks, 6 pens are what we prepare to be set up as needed. We then transition bonded families to “kindergarten,” where several families mingle but aren’t set free to roam the full playground yet. One other important step to get the barn ready is to shear your sheep. Wool takes up more space than you think and holds on to moisture, so promote the health of your flock by shearing.

There’s plenty more to do, but these items make my top five list. Not baaaaa-d for 450 babies, right?

Growing lambs

As we prepare for another season of winter lambs, I can’t help but reflect on my trip to sell healthy, full-grown spring lambs last week. It’s amazing that these animals turn our abundant – otherwise inedible to us – pastures into healthy meat for families like ours. Here’s a comparison of the same lamb when he was newly born to the time he was ready for harvest.

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In just a few months, our lambs grow to be about 120-160 pounds. We can’t keep them all, but we can provide care and attention for each animal on our farm.